Simone

There’s a little joke we used to tell at the Olympics: Nobody is more of an expert on anything than a sportswriter watching an Olympic sport for the second time. The first time a sportswriter would watch the highest level of a sport like fencing or diving or the biathlon or badminton, he or she (but, let’s be honest, mostly he) might try to learn the rules, try to figure out the rhythms, try to understand what’s going on.

The second time, however, that same sportswriter will say things out loud like, “Oh, that’s just a terrible dive, awful, what a choke,” or “that’s one of the worst clean and jerk efforts I’ve ever seen” or “Wow, what sloppy butterfly form.”

It really is quite funny. I remember at the Winter Olympics some years ago — you might remember this too — when Lindsey Jacobellis was winning the Snowboard Cross and near the end, she tried some sort of mid-air trick and she somehow fell and ended up losing the gold medal and settling for silver. And suddenly sportswriters who had never seen a Snowboard Cross in their lives and normally wouldn’t have watched the event if it had been happening IN THEIR BACKYARDS were mortified, indignant, offended beyond belief. Didn’t she know this was the Olympics? Doesn’t she understand the gravity of this moment?

How dare she TRY TO HAVE FUN WHEN SHE WAS FLYING HIGH IN THE AIR ON A SNOWBOARD!

“Silver is pretty good,” she said meekly, but this line of reasoning did not play especially well among those who had decided that nothing on earth is more important than Snowboard Cross gold, and the Olympics are bloodless war and that winning is the only thing that matters, even in events where people ride snowboards over mounds of snow.

I was reminded of this Tuesday when the incredible Simone Biles pulled out of the Olympics team gymnastics final. Biles is the best gymnast in the history of the world, and has been pretty much since she was 16 years old. Over the last eight years, she has led the United States to four team world championships and an Olympic Gold medal, and she has won a truckload of individual gold medals along the way.

But she didn’t feel right at these Olympics. The last year and a half has been hard on everybody in the world, and these particular Olympics are a mess with no fans in the stands, no family to support the athletes, and COVID-19 positives popping up every other hour — it’s not especially easy to understand why they’re even happening.

And in the prelims, Biles felt overwhelmed. She has been the best in the world for so long that it seemed easy. But it is anything but easy. As she wrote in an Instagram post: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like the pressure doesn’t affect me, but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The Olympics is no joke!”

The day of the finals was worse, much worse. She would later say that she couldn’t sleep leading up to the event. She was shaking. When she tried her first vault, she says that she got lost in the air … she simply could not concentrate the way she needed. Gymnasts have to overcome intense mental blocks to do the extraordinary and dangerous things they attempt. Simone Biles simply could not break through. She worried about getting hurt. She worried about hurting her team’s chances at a medal. And she withdrew from the event and rooted for her teammates, who went out and won the silver. She has since withdrawn from the individual event as well.

“I’m still struggling with some things,” she said afterward. “It just sucks when you are fighting with your own head.”

The response to all this has been predictable. Most people, I think, have stood behind Biles, applauded her greatness, wished her well as she finds her way. For even casual gymnastics fans, the joy that Biles had brought to us through the years is utterly overwhelming. Seeing her perform live in Rio and on television numerous other times has made my life significantly better. Having her participate in our First Woman Voter campaign last year was incredible too. I know countless people love her from afar.

And then … there was the infuriating backlash from those people who attacked Biles for, quote, “letting down her country.” This backlash seemed, for the most part, to be generated by a certain type of person — generally male, generally older, generally outspokenly conservative, generally, from what I can tell, from people who didn’t give one damn about gymnastics or Biles until they saw an opportunity they could seize upon to vomit their hot takes.

And suddenly they were “worried” about her letting her teammates down, letting her country down, as if the U.S. gymnastics team winning Olympic gold was something they had given 30 seconds of thought to before Tuesday, as if they could possibly understand what it takes to be a world-class gymnast, as if they could even remotely grasp what Simone Biles has had to do to reach such great heights. They have the gall to lecture Simone Biles — one of the greatest Olympic athletes ever — about what the Olympics mean. It would be funny if it wasn’t so awful.

There’s a funny scene in Shmigadoon! where Keegan Michael-Key’s character is asking women to cross a bridge with him and one of them says, “I didn’t know about this bridge until 10 seconds ago and now it’s the most important thing in my life.” That’s what I imagine happened to these people; they were barely aware that America was trying to win gymnastics gold again and suddenly that gold was the most important thing in their entire lives.

Simone Biles went to Tokyo to compete, to win, just like she did in Rio, just like she did at all those world championships, just like she did at countless gymnastics events that only her truest fans followed. She endured so much, overcame sexual abuse, carried the banner of her sport, lived every day with the expectations. Then, one year late, she was sent to Tokyo without her family, without fans in the stands, to compete at an Olympics that doesn’t feel at all like an Olympics.

And she just couldn’t do it. She tried. She couldn’t. If she had to pull out with a torn hamstring, nobody would have said anything. If she had to pull out with a broken rib, nobody would have said anything. But she had to pull out for reasons that run deeper, for an injury that is not so easily diagnosed, for a wound that is not so vividly seen, for demons that haunt her and so many of the world’s greatest athletes.

“I’m SO proud of these girls right here,” she wrote on an Instagram photo of her and teammates holding up their silver medals. “You girls are incredibly brave & talented! I’ll forever be inspired by your determination to not give up and to fight through adversity! They stepped up when I couldn’t. thanks for being there for me and having my back!”

Sure seems like the Olympic spirit to me.

Emergency PosCast

  
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In this emergency PosCast, Joe, Mike and former big-league pitcher Brandon McCarthy discuss the urgent issues of the day — should relievers’ ERAs go up when they give up inherited runs, how should we feel about the new Cleveland Guardians name and who is the worst hugger in Major League Baseball.

PosCast: Athletes we'd like to be

  
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PosCast! Puh-puh-puh-puh-puh PosCast! Mike and Joe are back, answering five penetrating questions from listeners and drafting athletes that they’d like to be.

Mary's Dress

The screen door slams, Mary’s dress … what?

— Thunder Road, Bruce Springsteen

I don’t remember when the argument began. We’ve been friends for so long now that, at some point, we’ve lost all of the beginnings. Half the things we say to each other now would not make sense to anyone else because they are inside jokes inside of inside jokes inside of inside jokes. Heck, they barely make sense to us anymore. Just unpacking why we reenact the “champagne cocktails” scene in Godfather II every time we see each other would take a 30 for 30 documentary or at least a long oral history.

Anyway, at some point a long time ago, Mike Vaccaro and I started arguing whether Mary’s dress sways or if Mary’s dress waves in Thunder Road, and we have been arguing about it nonstop ever since.

This argument has come to life in the last few days as people started writing so much about it that finally Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen’s manager and destroyer of worlds, felt it important to make the official pronouncement: Mary’s dress sways.

“The word is sways,” he told David Remnick of The New Yorker. “That’s the way he wrote it in his original notebooks, that’s the way he sang it on ‘Born to Run,’ in 1975, and that’s the way he has always sung it at thousands of shows … and by the way, dresses do not know how to ‘wave.’”

I have many feelings about this quote, none of them good. But the point here is not to question Jon Landau*. The point here is to talk about words.

*Here’s an actual text exchange between Mike and me while I am writing this piece — Vac started it with the GIF and emoji:

Yes, of course, Vac has always thought that Mary’s dress sways. The reason, he always said, is obvious: Sways it the word that rhymes.

The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays

Sways. Plays. For Mike, it really was simple. If her dress “waves” then the radio “paves” or “slaves” or “raves” or “shaves.” He didn’t need any other exhibits. If he was presenting his case in front of a jury, he would say: “Sways rhymes with plays. The prosecution rests.”

Mike isn’t exactly wrong talking about Bruce and rhyme. Springsteen has always been something a rhyming nut, and this was particularly true in his early days as a songwriter. He tells stories of climbing into bed with a rhyming dictionary and writing stanzas like this from “Blinded by the Light.”

With a boulder on my shoulder, feelin’ kinda older, I tripped the merry-go-round
With a very unpleasing, sneezing and wheezing the calliope crashed to the ground

So, Mike’s case, short as it might be, is pretty compelling. Sways. Plays. Couldn’t be anything else. Maybe Vac too, like Jon Landau, has trouble visualizing a dress waving. But, yeah, mostly it is the rhyming thing.

The trouble is — the thing I have always tried to tell Mike and would tell Jon Landau if he would listen — is that this is bigger than rhyme. For one thing, “waves” is absolutely close enough to a rhyme for “plays” that it doesn’t matter. But even leaving that alone …

1) “Sways” is absolutely the wrong word.

2) “Waves” is absolutely the right word.

It isn’t a close call. A dress that sways is nothing. A dress that waves is everything.

In my life as a Springsteen fan, I’ve had three significant lyric disagreements with the Boss. The first is the obvious one, the disagreement everyone has, the speedball fiasco in “Glory Days.” I know there are extreme Boss fans who will try to defend the indefensible “He could throw that speedball by ya,” by citing historical references of fastballs being called speedballs or by pointing out the musical superiority of the word “speedball” to “fastball.” But I cannot and will not go out on that creaky ledge with them. Speedball is wrong. Speedball is bad. Speedball is a lyrical catastrophe.

The second major disagreement is a personal one that nobody seems to agree with me on — it comes from the song “The Wrestler.”

Springsteen’s lyric: Have you ever seen a scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and wheat?

I believe it should have been: Have you ever seen a scarecrow lost in a field of dust and wheat?

I feel sure that my version is better, more expressive, more haunting, and I really don’t care what anybody says.*

*And, oh, by the way, the next line in “The Wrestler” is “If you’ve ever seen that scarecrow then you’ve seen me” … and “wheat” and “me” do not precisely rhyme.

Finally, the third disagreement: Mary’s dress waves. Of course, it waves.

Let’s put crude rhyme thoughts away and talk about the word “sways.”*

*For more on this — and, realistically, a more thoughtful take on this — please read my friend Caryn Rose’s thoughts.

The definition of sways: “To move slowly or rhythmically backward or from side to side.”

Now, let’s put sways in a sentence: “He swayed slightly on his feet.”

You get it, right? Sways is a certain kind of slow, lazy, dull movement. Think about the things that sway. Trees sway. Rocking chairs sway. Curtains sway. Smitten couples on the dance floor sway.

Now, re-read the lyric:

The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways

Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.

The screen door SLAMS. Mary DANCES like a VISION across the porch. The radio PLAYS. These are action words, power words, Mary is a tornado in motion, she is slamming screen doors, dancing across the porch, breaking hearts, she is spirit, and she is life, and she is a vision, and she is everything that he wants and dreams.

There is not the slightest chance in hell that her dress was swaying.

No. That dress was waving. Or, if you want to go to the thesaurus for wave synonyms, that dress was shaking, it was fluttering, it was swishing, it was flaunting. It wasn’t swaying like some nervous middle schooler trying to give an oral report on a book he didn’t read. No, that dress was WAVING, it was making itself known, it was telling its own story.

Things WAVE in the wind.

Things SWAY in a breeze.

You tell me, was Mary the wind or was she just a breeze?

I have little doubt in my mind that Springsteen originally wrote that “Mary’s dress sways.” He was young, and, as mentioned, he was hopelessly in love with rhyme. Anyway, what difference does that make? He had no idea that “Thunder Road” would become what it has become. It’s a single word in a 421-word song on an eight-song album recorded a long time ago. Waves. Sways. What difference could it make?

And the answer is that it makes no difference at all, except for this: Mary’s dress waves.

Play the Football Countdown game

So, as you can probably tell by the flurry of action here at JoeBlogs, we’ve got a few things brewing. The Baseball 100 is coming out on Sept. 28, and as I wrote before if you would like an autographed book inscribed with ANYTHING you want me to write*, you can get this special deal from the good folks at Rainy Day Books.** I’ll have more to say about The Baseball 100 in the weeks ahead.

*Within reason. Inscriptions must be limited so as not to cause writer’s cramp. No kind words about Derek Jeter. Any rebroadcast, retransmission or account of this game without the express written consent of Major League Baseball is strictly prohibited.

**Rainy Day Books did want me to say that because of website limitations, they can only offer this to people in the United States. However, if you happen to be in Canada or somewhere else in the world and would like to take advantage of the deal, you can call the store at (913) 384-3126 and order over the phone. They do warn that shipping costs could be quite high, though.

And this week, Mike Schur and I brought back the PosCast. Still working out some details there but we have some plans going forward that I hope to share over the weeks ahead as well.

And then there is this new online NFL game that I worked on with Tom Tango. It’s pretty self explanatory, but basically I’d love for you to go here and vote for the football player you think is better. You click on the “Football Countdown” link and you’ll get a page that looks something like this:

All you have to do is decide whether Merlin Olsen or Mean Joe was the better player and click submit. Then you’ll get two more players … and two more players … and two more … for as long as you enjoy playing.

And if you don’t really have an opinion on Merlin Olsen and Joe Greene, you can just click “I’d rather pass” and move on to the next question.

I think it’s pretty fun to play. Also, as you no doubt deduced, there’s a larger purpose for the game which I will be telling you all about very soon. You probably already have guessed where this is going, but I’ll wait to give you all the details until everything is squared away. What I can say now is that the more you play, the better the results will be.

Once again the link is here.

OK, that’s it, thanks everybody. More to come soon.

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