By In Stuff

Following Hornby

Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez recorded the third perfect game of the season on Wednesday.

So, this is the year that I really try to follow the Premier League … and the NHL. I’ve been talking about doing those two things forever now, but this is the year. I’m ordering the television packages. I’m buying the preseason magazines. I’m telling you: This is the year.

Today’s focus is the Premier League (and baseball) because I just read Nick Hornby’s wonderful and too-short e-book “Pray: Notes on the 2011/2012 Football Season.” It is Hornby, with his unparalleled book about being a sports fan, “Fever Pitch*,” — who got me infatuated with the idea of being a fan of a Premier League team in the first place.

*Well, Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes” is as amazing in a different way.

The thing that was so wonderful about “Fever Pitch” is that, for me, half of it might as well have been in Portuguese. I didn’t know any of the players he was talking about, except Pele. I didn’t relate to any of the culture events or sporting events he referenced. And yet, everything in the book was familiar, because everything in there was about growing up and being a fan. His experiences, both in life and in sport, were entirely different from mine growing up as, say, a Cleveland Browns fan. And yet, at the core, they were exactly the same.

I think Hornby, if he wasn’t one of the most successful and wonderful novelists in the world and was willing to take a gigantic cut in pay and admiration, would be the best sportswriter on earth. And sometimes, thankfully, he gives in and writes a bit about sports, and for me, it’s like finding a Springsteen song I had never heard before. “Pray” is Hornby at the top of his sportswriting game.

There are three sections of “Pray” that, for whatever reason, made me think about, well, hot topics in baseball — from the new wild cards, to instant replay to, yes, King Felix’s perfect game Wednesday. These thoughts, I should add, should not reflect poorly on Nick Hornby, who had absolutely nothing to do with them except write something so fun that my mind went whirring.


I. Playoffs


Try explaining to Americans the denouement of the football season — any football season, anywhere in the world — and they will look on you with disbelief.
“Let me get this straight. Each team plays thirty-eight games, and then whoever has won the most at the end of the season wins the championship?”
“That’s right.” … 

It does seem uncompromising and puritanical, when you look at it through American eyes, but any attempt to introduce something that might jazz up the finale would be viewed with very deep suspicion now. If you take sport seriously, then you want to know who the best team is, and the best team is clearly the one that has accumulated the highest total of points between August and May. If there was any sport that was going to hold back the playoff tide in America over the last 40 or so years, it was going to be baseball. Yes, college football has fought ferociously against playoffs, but let’s face it: That had almost nothing to do with philosophy and picking the best teams (heck, for years they had SPORTSWRITERS pick the best teams, so they obviously didn’t care about that process) and almost everything to do with the bowls and keeping the money in the right people’s pockets and all that jazz.

No, baseball was the one American sport that defied the logic of playoffs. They play 162 games in a season. One hundred and sixty-two bleeping games. When you have teams play 162 games, over spring and summer and into the fall, in cold and hot and scorching and hot and cool again, you know at the end which teams are best. You know. For many years, the system was pure and simple: The best team in the American League after a long season won a pennant, the best team in the National League after a long season won a pennant. They were champions. They then played each other in the boldly named World Series to determine the team that could claim to be World Champion. That was your baseball season.

And, if you think about it from a British perspective, from the Hornby perspective of “If you take sports seriously, then you want to know the best team is” … that system was probably the best ever developed. No other sport was designed to play so many games over so long a season. No other sport could give you 162 games crunched together in six months, a near perfect laboratory to determine which team in each league could best overcome adversity, injury, bad luck and losing spells.

In 1969, of course, the system changed. It seems to me that, while there were some purists, chance is really what people wanted. Maybe in England, the playing out the string of a season already won by Manchester United or Chelsea or Arsenal offers enough excitement in other ways to keep people fascinated (and the whole concept of teams getting relegated certainly does add excitement). And maybe in America, we are different. In 1969, they decided to split each league into two divisions, and the have the champion of each division play for the pennant.

The amazing part is that, for the first 16 years of this system, the division winners would play a BEST-OF-FIVE series for the pennant. That seems absolutely extraordinary to me now. Baseball fans had been raised on this idea that the best team in the league goes to the World Series, and suddenly that was determined by an absurdly short series. It isn’t that a best-of-seven series is ideal, but ANY TEAM could beat ANY TEAM in a best of five. Baseball fans know this: If the hopeless Kansas City Royals were just placed into the playoffs against the Texas Rangers and told that winning a best of five series would get them into the World Series — with two of the games at home, no less — there’s a pretty decent chance the Royals would win. Maybe it’s a 30-percent chance. But that’s one of the worst teams in the league against one of the best.

There are numerous advantages to a playoff system in baseball, of course. It keeps more teams — and more fans — involved throughout the season. It spreads hope around the league. It adds tremendous excitement to the end of the season, when more people are paying attention. It offers more television viewing. And there’s the sense that as baseball has expanded, adding more teams and more cities, that adding more teams to the playoffs is simply the fair thing to do. Give more teams a chance. It’s oversimplifying, of course, but maybe in England they have come to believe that champions are determined solely through the long slog of a season. And in America, we prefer to believe that anybody can be champion if they can rise to the occasion in the big moment.

And here’s another maybe: Maybe we as Americans — in large numbers — don’t watch sports to know “who is the best team.” Maybe we watch sports for the chance of surprise, for the potential drama, for reliable thrills. Over time, four playoff teams in baseball became eight. And this year, eight playoff teams become 10 with the addition of the second wild card.

I’m not saying this is wrong … I don’t think it’s wrong. I think this is unquestionably what most people in America want. Still, there’s no question that the second wild card — where now TWO teams that do not win their division are included in the playoffs — would be utterly antithetical to the way people in England watch sport. In England, they stick to their playoff-less system no matter how many boring championship endings they get. Here in America, we saw a flaw in our playoff system — a complicated flaw that seemed to cut the motivation for teams to win as many games as they could — and we have tried to fix it by adding more playoffs.


II. Instant Replay


I don’t want my children growing up in a world where refereeing mistakes have been eliminated. Kids have already spent too much time being told by broadcasters that professional sport is deadly serious, that teams and players are at war.

In essence, Hornby’s argument against instant replay is that referee mistakes are funny … and there aren’t enough left in sports that are funny. I think that argument is pretty classic, but for me the question takes a slightly different turn. Do we treat sports too seriously? I mean, yes, of course we do, everybody knows that. But I mean something else.

In 1968, the Jets and Raiders were playing a regular-season game, and the Jets were leading 32-29 with a minute left when NBC executives — in a move that would bury them for all eternity — decided to switch the Eastern half of the United States to the Wonderful World of Disney’s presentation of “Heidi.” It is one of the most infamous decisions in American sports television. The Raiders scored two touchdowns in the last minute, people screamed at Heidi, and no television network ever left a game early again no matter how long it went on, even if it meant holding back a “60 Minutes” report on how we will all soon die a some kind of poisonous gas.

I’ve long thought that was a key moment in our sports culture, a moment when we realized, for better or worse, just how important sports are to us, how they are always more important than any regularly scheduled programming that might follow. Oh sure, every so often a major news event — like a terrible tragedy or a tornado closing on your house or O.J. Simpson driving away from police — might interrupt sports. But it had to be major. And it was rare.

In some ways, instant replay in sports — particularly in football, but really in all sports — drives home the same point. Let me say that I’m all for instant replay because we have the technology and I’m all for getting the calls right. But I do think replays heightens the seriousness of sport. Suddenly, it’s not enough to have a referee make a call. Our games are too crucial for that. We must get the call right. We don’t see blown calls so much as regrettable but inherent parts of people playing a game; we see them as a blight, a menace. These games are too significant and urgent and historic, and we can’t have people messing up whether the guy had two feet in bounds or missed the tag.

I tend to agree with Hornby that referee and umpire blunders are funny and they are certainly more memorable than replay overturns. They are indelible parts of our sports history. And I see tremendous appeal to that. But, perhaps regrettably, I am for replay. I don’t want blown calls, and I want them fixed by technology … especially in baseball where replay is stubbornly but futilely pushed off. Thing is, I know I feel this way because I think these games ARE important.


III. King Felix and Perfection


The 4-4 draw is a relatively modern phenomenon — or at least, if it was a frequent score in the old days, then it was in the old old days, before even my life as a fan. … The four highest scoring games in twenty years of the Premiership have all come in the last five years.

Felix Hernandez threw the third perfect game of the season Wednesday, and this is (of course) the first time that three perfect games have been thrown in the same season. Two years ago, in 2010, was the first time that TWO perfect games were thrown in the same season, and if there had been replay in baseball that year, Armando Galarraga’s game would have been called perfect as well.

There are a lot of theories as to why there have been so many perfect games lately. As you might know, in the 41 seasons from 1923 through 1963, there was one perfect game thrown, and that was Don Larsen’s perfecto in the World Series. Nobody threw a regular-season perfect game for more than four decades. There were three perfect games in the 1960s, that great pitchers decade, all by future Hall of Famers, and then none in the 1970s despite that being a great pitcher’s decade as well. Then, three in the 1980s and four in the 1990s — all by good pitchers, some very good, but I suspect none of the seven will be in the Hall of Fame.

And finally, in the last eight years, we’ve had: Randy Johnson (2004); Mark Buehrle (2009); Dallas Braden (2010); Roy Halladay (2010); Phillip Humber (2012); Matt Cain (2012) and, now Felix Hernandez.

Why? I’ve thought for a while now that, in the same way that Sir Roger Bannister’s breaking of the four-minute mile eliminated the mental barrier, so the mental barrier for the perfect game has been shattered. It’s still an absurdly hard thing to do, of course, but if you don’t drench the perfect game with the barriers of history and tradition and the astronomical odds, it’s easier to pitch one. I think the mythology of the perfect game has been pierced a bit — maybe by Braden, who might have been the least accomplished pitcher to throw one until Humber did.

It also helps that batters strike out a lot more now: King Felix struck out 12, Cain struck out 14, Humber struck out nine, Halladay struck out 11. I don’t think strikeouts are the problem so many old-school baseball people make them out to be, but it is true that they are balls not put in play, and so are a best friend to anyone striving to throw a perfect game.

And there’s something else … something that I thought about when reading Hornby’s thoughts on how many more goals are being scored in the Premier League now (and how much he despises that trend; it’s a must-read). This could be nonsensical — I’m really just throwing it out there — it seems to me that the proliferation of sports and sports highlights on television (a relatively new thing) have real long-term effects on how the games are played. I think of the dunk. At some point — maybe around the time of Dr. J in the ABA and Connie Hawkins from the playground — the dunk became artistic. ESPN came on the air not long after that, and it showed lots and lots of dunks. And, over time, there were better dunkers, and even better dunkers, and even better dunkers, and the dunk became a bigger and bigger part of the game.

The same I think is true of home runs. Yes, steroids played its part of the home-run revolution just like a lot of other things such as better equipment and training and smaller strike zones … but I’d say that the proliferations of highlights on television romanticized the home run. We saw home run after home run after home run — with broadcasters coming up with their own catch phrases for them — until being a home-run hitter was just about the greatest thing a baseball player could be. Did that have an effect? I don’t know. But maybe.

I don’t know enough about British television to know if the television highlight packages are all goals and goals and near goals and great saves and more goals. But that’s what I tend to see when I watch highlights. And I do wonder if the constant showing of great goals being scored — I went on YouTube and watched every Messi goal this year — slowly, very slowly, evolves the sport, changes it, maybe gets a few more talented kids to lean toward goal scoring, maybe infuses in them a new goal-scoring instinct and so on and so on. I have no idea if this is true, or if it even matches up with what’s happening in Great Britain, but I do think that there are rewards and consequences to our new world that we don’t think about. I know that there are people who constantly write how Twitter and digital TV and Spotify and iPhones and all of it are changing our culture, but I would imagine there are tiny ways that go unnoticed by all of us.

I’m not saying that any of this is why we are getting more perfect games now. It could just be a statistical fluke and we might not get another for 30 years. Then again, if there’s a someone with a perfect game in the ninth inning tomorrow, I’d give him a pretty good chance to finish it off, probably a better chance than at any time in baseball history.

41 Responses to Following Hornby

  1. Mark Coale says:

    ITS A good year to follow hockey, who knows when the season will start, if it starts.

    No playoffs is one of main reasons to follow intl footy, along w no.commercials and promotion/relegation.

    • Dave Backus says:

      I agree, relegation is a great thing. That and Champions League means lots of teams are in play till the end. Didn’t a bottom three team beat City near the end last year?

    • Mark Coale says:

      QPR was due to be relegated on the last day when they almost upset Man City. But thanks to someone (Bolton?) losing before the game was over, QPR knew they were safe from relegation, possibly letting their guard down and allowing CIty to score their FErgie Time goal and win the title.

  2. Corey says:

    The major reason why more goals are scored now than 25 years ago is that they changed the rules. After the debacle of the 1990 World Cup (which appropriately enough was held in Italy, who are famous for the defending), the backpass to the goalie was eliminated. Teams used to be able to waste time by passing the ball to the goalie, who would pick it up, bounce it a couple times, throw it to a defender, who would pass it to another defender, then pass it back to the goalie, repeat, etc. It was like Dean Smith’s four corners offense and was a mainstay of Liverpool’s dynasty of the late 70s and 80s.

    Then a few years after that they changed the interpretation of the offside rule to give greater freedom to attacking players. That forced defenses to play closer to their goal, which created more space in midfield for creative players.

    You’re also overlooking other issues here. England does have playoffs, it’s called the FA Cup, you just got a separate, less important trophy for winning it. It’s like if in the NHL the President’s Trophy (awarded for best regular season record) was more important than the Stanley Cup. And the European Cup (the most important trophy in club football) is based on a playoff/knockout style tournament. And England now uses playoffs to determine promotion from lower divisions; the teams finishing first and second are automatically promoted while the 3rd through 6th places go to a playoff for the final spot.

    Finally, the major issue behind the growth of playoffs in the U.S. is television money.

  3. Tyler says:

    Sorry Joe, I’ve got to disagree strongly with you on one statement. You say you think Hornby could be the best sportswriter of earth, I say at best he’d come in number 2. There’s a soft-hearted, snuggie loving, iPad2 review coming bald guy out there that ain’t gonna be knocked out of the number 1 spot anytime soon.

  4. Alex says:

    I think the main reason they can get away with no playoffs is the various championship tourneys they have throughout the year. I don’t know the names but it seems they are playing a new one every few months. If you didn’t have those the leagues would have playoffs to fill the void.

  5. Jim Conlin says:

    It makes me sad to see that King Felix’ accomplishment is being minimized in this way. He is the ultimate team player, in the conversation for the best of his generation and a beacon to a benighted sports city. I had hoped to see you publish more about Felix, maybe about the travesty that is ESPN. (asking him why he should not be traded on his perfect day) Oh, well…Felix is ours and they can’t have him.

  6. n says:

    Regarding playoffs, it is interesting to note that in the Championship (2nd tier of English soccer), the top 2 teams are promoted to the Premier League, but then teams in positions 3-6 are in essentially the playoffs to determine the final team. It’s not the same as having playoffs to determine the Premiership winner, but idea of playoffs aren’t foreign in English soccer.

  7. njwv says:

    The FA cup is open to all teams in England, not just the Premiership. So it’s really more like an unseeded March Madness than anything else. Upsets, Cinderellas, early-round heavyweight battles. While it’s not as important as the league title, it is not a minor trophy either.

    And yes. FIFA has been changing the rules in ways which increase scoring. In addition to the ones Corey mentions, the interpretation of fouls has moved more toward protecting the offensive players and discouraging tactical fouls.

  8. Jamnjazzz says:

    Agree w/ Alex and Corey…there are multiple Playoffs going on in Europe all the time. Champions League, Europa League down to the intra-country tourneys like the FA Cup in England. They are happening all during the season and add an external competition to the Leagues that exist. I don’t think that they all take a back seat to the league races, hell I’m an American what do I know, but I suspect Chelsea winning the 2011-12 Champions League may have been every bit as big (if not bigger) than the 2009-10 Premiership?

    One thing that is different is that Football (Soccer) may be head and shoulders above any other sport in attraction to the average European. Unlike North America w/ Football, Baseball, Basketball, Hockey (in Canada) and numerous other sports that may draw rabid followings across a large continent but one nation. European interests seem to be more in finding out how their clubs stack up against similar clubs in other countries. Also to note, not only the League Champion is invited to these external tourneys, multiple teams qualify. After all Chelsea wasn’t the reigning Premier League Champion when they recently won the Champions League, Man U was.

    All in all an interesting comparison to think about.

  9. nightflyblog says:

    You might be following a lockout, rather than an actual hockey season – I hope not, but the NHL’s track record over the past 20 years is problematic.

    If there are actual games to follow, I recommend three places for you, Joe. The first is Justin Bourne and company writing at Backhand Shelf. You get a very wide variety of voices and styles, and Bourne’s dad, Bob Bourne, was a very successful NHLer (and an SI Sportsman of the Year to boot). Bourne himself played pro (didn’t make the NHL, tho) and has a great perspective. He also does a series of posts called Systems Analyst which dissect plays for the casual observer, which will definitely help you get more out of the sport.

    The second spot is Down Goes Brown, written by Sean McIndoe, a Maple Leafs fan who has at least three times as many funny bones as the rest of us.

    The third is not so much a site as a suggestion – jump on the New York Islanders bandwagon. They have a lot of good young players, one of the more exciting talents in John Tavares, and a loyal, fatalistic, ever-hopeful fanbase. You should feel right at home – and especially if the worst happens and they pack up to move to KC in a few years. Get in on the ground floor! (OK, get in on the basement… but the elevator seems to be finally working again!) (OK OK OK, maybe it’s stalled again, but this time we’re not actually stuck IN the elevator! We can take the stairs! It’ll be fine!!!!!)

    • Hirsby says:

      Re: Nightflyblog….After all of Joe’s years of being tormented by Cleveland sports teams, you want to add to the misery by making him an Islanders fan? 🙂

  10. y42k says:

    Nick is awesome, but $2.99 for an article is a ripoff. One downside to the (cliche alert) ebook revolution is that short items like this, that once were saved up for collections, are now being sold individually at a much higher cost to the reader.

  11. Mikey says:

    Damn, new Hornby and Posnanski books at the same time. Our cup runneth over.

    Echoing earlier comments it’s a bit of a misconception among American sports fans that there are no playoffs in English soccer. I think it’s cool that European soccer allows for a mix of championships decided by a bracket-style playoff and championships decided solely by regular season results. Makes for a rich fan experience.

    As for King Felix, in addition to the factors Joe mentions there’s the near-total absence of bunting for a base hit in the modern game. I’d say that league-wide bunting skills have to be at or near an all-time low, and it’s compounded by some kind of honor code that makes it unacceptable to bunt for a hit to break up a perfecto.

    Joe, I guess you’re not going to post your piece from today’s USA Today here on the blog so I’ll post in these comments that it was tremendous and my anticipation for the release of the book could not be higher. Predictably the comments on the USAT site were mostly idiotic and depressing but I think your longtime readers will understand what you were trying to say. Good luck next week.

  12. Ernie Adams says:

    Joe, there’s been a recent unquestioned certainty about the moral rightness of replay in sports that has bugged me lately. You’re far from the only one to subscribe to this theory, but I’m hoping I can draw you out for some more thoughts on it.

    I believe that the most misused phrase ever to be uttered came from Oscar Goldman’s lips: “Gentlemen, we have the technology.” That’s not really a reason to want to get calls right, but that’s what most people say if you give them five seconds to explain why replay should be expanded across the board in sports. Sorry, “because we can” just doesn’t cut it for me. I simply do not understand our ongoing societal obsession with certainty, with banishing any and all gray areas to some hazy bygone era where people read newspapers and smoke indoors. I blame Google, personally, because why not.

    I suppose that taking sports too seriously could also yield a strong argument against the expansion of replay. If we believe that sports are a reflection of life, and as consumers of good sportswriting we’re all obligated to believe it, then we should argue fervently in favor of the dreaded human element. The reason is simple: since when is life 100 percent fair all of the time? People are always getting screwed in life, with no replay to save them from a bad break. Why should sports be any different? Armando Galarraga doesn’t get his name in the almanac, but we’ll all remember him anyway, and besides, nobody buys almanacs anymore. Why do we need to prevent another Galarraga? He turned out fine and so will the next guy. You dust yourself off and you try again.

    To bring out this tired trope: what is wrong with explaining that message to our children? There’s a significant truth in the fact that the best team doesn’t always win (both in sports and in life), even if perhaps they should have, but all you can do is the best you can and hope it turns out your way. Teach them a little perspective and persistence, instead of telling them not to worry, they’ll have a certain number of red challenge flags they can throw over the course of their lives. Yes? For the children?

    Anyway, I’d love to dump all the the Six Million Dollar Man garbage and hear some more critical thought about why we actually want endless replay and computerization in our sports. (Note: I will accept “Joe West is endlessly irritating” as a valid response.)

    • There are many, many problems with your argument, but I don’t have the time to pinpoint all of them. For now I will simply say that one thing you seem to be glossing over is that we already have banished the gray areas and uncertainty. Whether they use it to overrule the safe call at first base or not, we know whether the call is correct. So the “we have the technology” argument for replay is that it’s preposterous for us to know whether the call is right or wrong and not to use that information.

      To put it another way, the gray areas and uncertainty were never the product of any choice anyone made, there simply wasn’t an alternative.

    • Ernie Adams says:

      Just having fun here — it would definitely not be worth the trouble to disassemble my post point-by-point, so thanks for not biting. The one thing I genuinely don’t get, and I swear I’m not trolling, is why it’s preposterous not to correct the call even though we usually can. Why does it bother people so much that somebody might get something wrong? I wasn’t around when the Sports Treaty of Versailles was signed and the world declared in one voice, “never again.” I never got swept up in the fervor of perfect outcomes for imperfect games.

      I think ultimately I do subscribe more to a Whitlockean view of sports as entertainment, a viewpoint that got him unceremoniously exiled from Lupica’s Sports Reporters fiefdom because he wouldn’t join the pitchfork mob that wanted all the PED guys’ heads on sticks. Maybe (almost certainly) he and I are just nuts. But there’s something about the entertainment value of a mistake, as Hornby might be getting at, that I hope doesn’t die out when Questec takes over balls and strikes for good.

    • Mark Coale says:

      Of course, I bet Lupica didn’t give away all the money he made off his McGuire/Sosa book, once he found out they were (allegedly) dirty.

      Dick Ebersol, in joe’s interview, basically called the Olympics Sports Entertainment (spending too much time over the years with Vince McMahon I guess).

      They might not be entertainment, but considering how many teams are now owned by media companies, they are definitely seem by many as content.

    • J.R. Granger says:

      I guess I just don’t see what’s so entertaining about bad calls. I want to be entertained by the talent displayed by the players of the games, so when an umpire/referee makes a mistake that determines outcome as opposed to talent, well, that’s the opposite of what I’m looking for in sports.

  13. Hirsby says:

    The Premiership’s system is indeed the fairest but what makes it work perfectly is that the schedule is also the fairest. Every EPL team plays every other EPL team twice — one home, one away. Simple as that.

    In baseball, the playoff system is defensible since despite the 162 games, you can argue we DON’T know who the best teams are given the lopsided schedules. A team like Toronto, for instance, would’ve surely won at least a few AL Central titles over the years had they not been stuck playing their AL East rivals 72 times per year.

  14. smartmouth says:

    good column. one of my least faves but you’re still batting north of .888 in my estimation. one thing that gets overlooked in the (somewhat) post-steroid era is the effect the ‘roids had on batters’ eyesight. and you’re seeing the effects of fewer players ‘roiding in the dropoff of hitting and the concomitant improvement in pitching. as for soccer, less said the better. if you can get through a game you’re a better man than i. a game where a player cannot complete 3 consecutive passes to the intended teammate cannot have strategy. anyone playing soccer past the age of 9 is wasting their life.

    • Ed says:

      They are wasting their life by making millions of dollars to play a sport?

    • gl says:

      i believe he is talking about the USA. Wasting their life is way too strong; in the context of ever making a professional living off of playing sports, you had best be playing something other than soccer or volleyball. For context, look at attendance at high school games. When you only see parents and friends, you are in trouble. 9 years old is a good year to switch to something else if your child is atletic.

    • Ed says:

      I’m not sure that’s a good argument, because nobody goes to high school baseball games either, except in certain areas — and in certain areas, high school soccer games get significant attendance too. It’s really only football and basketball that get solid attendance, and even basketball doesn’t have much attendance in some places.

      Regardless, the chances of making it as a professional athlete in ANY sport is minuscule, so a kid might as well keep playing what they enjoy playing. I only played soccer for one year as a 10 year old and didn’t like it, so I quit — now I wish I hadn’t, because I’ve grown to love the sport.

  15. gwowen says:

    Just one extra note on England and play-offs. That play-off aversion is not particularly English, but it is peculiar to soccer. Twenty five years ago, no sports in England had a play-off to determine the Championship. Since then, two of the three next-biggest sports, Rugby League and Rugby Union, have instuted a play-off for their overall champions.

    Cricket does not, but they have added two divisions with promotion and relegation.

    Back to soccer — no, the FA Cup is not a play-off. It’s a knock-out cup, and that’s not the same. But, as fewer and fewer teams start the season with realistic ambitions of winning the league, it does keep the casual fan interested (as does the prospect of relegation, and the fact that finishing near the top qualifies you for European competition).

  16. Dan R says:

    We’re getting more perfect games now because change in a complex system is almost always allotropic. Different parts of the system experience the change differently, getting larger or smaller or faster or slower or more or less of whatever at a pace which is not quite the same as any other part. Evolution provides many examples: a species gets bigger over many generations, but usually the bone mass increases much faster than the muscle mass, so that the thighbone of an African elephant might weigh 60% more than the thighbone of an Indian elephant even though the former is only 30% heavier overall.

  17. Luis says:

    The Premier league might be the third most important league in Europe behind the Spanish “La Liga” and the Italian Calccio, and then you have the also important German league, and then the South American leagues (Argentina and Brazil).

    The point is, a trend in the Premier league, hence, means very little to what’s happening to soccer. Unlike the US and baseball, basketball and american football, the Brits have very little influence on soccer.

    Scoring has been an issue for a long time to the point that almost all the rule changes have to do to increase scoring: Golden Goal, Silver Goal, can’t kick back to the goalkeeper, changes to offside rules, etc. All of these have done almost nothing.

    We still see pretty low scores in the World Cup, Euro league, Champions League, etc.

    And no, TV’s emphasis on scoring has not heighten the “desire” to score. Soccer is very simple and it only has TWO exciting moments: a score, and a stop. That’s it. Good plays in the midfield mean nothing if they don’t end up on a score.

    I have been a soccer fan all my life, I know the culture, the story lines, the world pecking order, etc, and I can’t see one bad reason for a 4-4 draw. As I said before, FIFA has come up with every possible bad idea to increase soccer with very little luck.

  18. I still don’t care about soccer…

  19. nscadu 9 says:

    Just a note on pre-empted games, since you are trying to follow the NHL. 1987 saw a game pre-empted as a game was about to go into OT, to show the movie Heidi. Dave Hodge has a classic reaction and subsequently fired. Don’t believe any games have been pre-empted since.

  20. anne says:

    Really enjoyable reading about things I wouldn’t normally think about. I do enjoy baseball.

  21. Unknown says:

    Hey wait a minute…one of the worst teams in baseball? Damn!

  22. Vidor says:

    Man, I can’t imagine watching that much soccer.

    I’d attribute the spate of perfect games to a couple of things. First, there are more teams now, so there are more chances for perfect games. Then there are the strikeouts, which Joe alludes to. During that 40-year span that Joe references there were eight games a day involving teams that rarely whiffed. Now there are 15 games a day and whiffs by the bushel.

    As far as instant replay goes, I don’t get this romantic, starry-eyed attitude towards error, this fondness towards error that treats errors and mistakes like some kind of tradition to be upheld. If the problem is that instant replay is a symptom of games being too important, well, the games have been that important for a long, long time.

    • Bob Ginty says:

      I think instant replay in baseball is a reaction to more teams, more games and more umpires…. many of those umpires being guys who aren’t very good. If you look at most crews, there are one or two veterans and 2-3 young guys. Eventually the frustration levels with all the botched calls get to the point where people just want the right call. Then you get instant replay. It will be interesting though, because the biggest frustration is umpires who call a super tight strike zone… which leads to high pitch counts, early entry into the bullpens, more pitchers and longer games.

  23. Mark Daniel says:

    Hockey and soccer? Say it ain’t so. As an alternative, I suggest delving into athletes trying to make the US Winter Olympic team. The Winter Olympics are only 18 months away. There are lots of athletes to discover and much drama to unfold in that time.

  24. Bob Ginty says:

    Just ask yourself who the highest paid players are. ARod and Pujols. Homerun hitters. I’m not a huge soccer fan, but I expect goal scorers (like Messi) & not defensive stars are the highest paid players. Players notice who’s getting the big bucks and why they are getting the big bucks. If you want to understand why, just follow the money.

  25. jim says:

    It’s funny that you mention reading Fever Pitch and feeling like it was written in a foreign language. Funny because I just read an excerpt of a new fairy tale in which an Ivy League educated adult read a document and didn’t know what “pedophile” meant. Reading difficulty truly afflicts us all!!!!

  26. jim says:

    No, no, the word was “sodomy.” See barely I can understandz word either! I will now go sob.

    • Bob Ginty says:

      Has anyone read Joe’s book? The media hype makes it sound like a huge cop out. “Let each person come to their own conclusion”. Can you imagine if Season on the Brink (with Bobby Knight throwing a chair) was handled like that?

    • Vidor says:

      “Has anyone read Joe’s book?”

      Well, let’s be candid–Posnanski was the in-house authorized biographer of Joe Paterno, and he obviously got way too close to his subject, as his embarrassing comments at that Joe Paterno class revealed. (A writer with more perspective and distance from his subject might have realized the fundamental insanity of having a class on Joe Paterno).

      Deadspin has a pretty good piece up on how Posnanski obfuscates in order to minimize Paterno’s culpability.

      Personally, I agree that it’s not very credible to imagine that Joe Paterno didn’t know what sodomy was or didn’t understand that boys can be raped.

  27. Trader Stein says:

    Joe, if you want some help in getting into the Premiere League check out the excellent podcast Men in Blazers on the Grantland Network. I don’t care at all for the Premiere League but listen to those guys every week. They are so funny and entertaining.

  28. Bob Post says:

    I believe the Perfect Game glass window was shattered when Kevin Costner threw one in “For Love of the Game”. If Billy Chapel can do it, why can’t Dallas Braden?

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