Baby boomers and their baseball books

On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.

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As Grantland contributor Bryan Curtis’ recent sweeping survey of baseball bibliography shows, there’s a baseball book for just about everybody.

But like Abraham Lincoln was to the massive Civil War field of study, volumes and volumes of baseball books have been written to cater to the baby boom generation of readers, and fans.

Born in the 1950s and coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, baby boomers occupy the sweet spot for the baseball genre. As Curtis explains:

“When ideas fail, baseball books drift back to the same place where they’ve been anchored for two decades: the 1950s. Baseball books are instant replay for baby boomers. ‘There has to be a book every year about Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Ted Williams, or some combination thereof,’ said Robert Weintraub, author of The Victory Season, which was published last year. ‘I’m guilty of that myself.’

“The ’50s is farmland already tilled by literary HOFers like David Halberstam and Roger Kahn, by Jane Leavy and Richard Ben Cramer. Each go-round leaves fewer available plots. Leavy did Mantle in 2010. James S. Hirsch did Mays the same year. So it was inevitable that in 2013, Allen Barra would do them both, in the dual biography Mickey and Willie. If an author finds his mandate getting too small, he compensates by going big. Last year, Ben Bradlee Jr.’s biography of Ted Williams came in at a whopping 784 pages.

“There’s a funny thing about the boomers trudging to the shelves. The overfamiliarity of the old ballplayers isn’t a turnoff; it’s the sell. ‘What you want if you’re a reader is to pull back a curtain on a time you remember well,’ explained literary agent David Black.”

The most current offerings continue to reflect this range of chronology, from the so-called “Golden Age” of baseball that climaxed in the 1950s to the mid-1970s. The appeal of this time frame for boomers is obvious: The inheritance of memories from their fathers to their own fan experiences as young adults, right before baseball free agency shattered much of the nostalgia of their youth.

Madden_1954_CoverBill Madden, a sportswriter for the New York Daily News, taps into the former with “1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever.”

(Here’s an excerpt focused on racially-oriented sparring between Jackie Robinson and Dick Young, the incorrigible Daily News sportswriter.)

As the 1954 season dawned, Willie Mays and Larry Doby were becoming the first black superstars in baseball for purely baseball reasons, as opposed to the groundbreaking role played by Robinson. That year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregation in public schools. In the fall, Mays made the breathtaking catch in deep, deep center in the Polo Grounds during the World Series, as his Giants defeated Doby’s Cleveland Indians.

It was the first World Series, in fact, in which black players were in uniform for both teams.

Madden tries to show how baseball was ahead of the social curve as more integration fights loomed. In this Q and A with the Indiana Sports Journalism Center, Madden — who spoke to many of his surviving subjects, admittedly childhood heroes — said he also wanted to write the book because he was hoping to break new ground:

“Nobody’s ever written about this season, which was another impetus for me to push my agent to get somebody to buy this book, because it needed to be written, in my opinion.”

A review on seamheads.com makes a common complaint about books like this, and that Curtis alludes to — it lacked “a better sense of how life was in the 1950s by touching on more non-baseball events.” More reviews from MLB.com, and Pop Matters, which also concludes that Madden’s book “stands as a missed opportunity to tell a larger, more instructive story.”

Fast forward a couple of decades to the focal point of journalist Dan Epstein’s “Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Summer of ‘76.” Stars and Strikes

The author of the 2012 book “Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s,” Epstein continues the story as America celebrated its bicentennial. These were my high school days, and the stories here have brought back very powerful memories for me.

Against the backdrop of the button-down dynasty of the Cincinnati Reds’ Big Red Machine, the just-ended dynasty of the hairy, brawling Oakland A’s, and the towering figures of Thurman Munson, Mike Schmidt and Mark Fidrych, Epstein tries to evoke the spirit of the sport across the larger American society, especially pop culture.

Some of the reviews are mixed, but always include the large dollops of zaniness that Epstein heaps out, on page after anecdote-filled page. As Chris Vognar notes in The Dallas Morning News, Epstein expertly fleshes out the rollicking promotions of Bill Veeck, Charlie Finley, Ted Turner and other owners unafraid — or perhaps just totally shameless — about finding new ways to lure fans to the ballpark:

“My favorite: Headlock and Wedlock Day, for which Turner’s Atlanta Braves hosted a group wedding ceremony and a wrestling exhibition. What a bargain.”

(Has it really been 35 years since Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park? The cultural scourge of my youth blown all to hell. I was ecstatic. How time flies.)

The business of baseball was about to change big-time, with big salaries and contentious labor disputes marring the next two decades. Epstein, who’s in his late 40s, wants readers of his generation to remember that time fondly. The age of big money has brought with it more recent battles over performance-enhancing drugs, which also seems to be pitting baby boom writers against bloggers, especially over Hall of Fame induction.

In an interview with The Sporting News, Epstein is being more than nostalgiac talking about the wacky owners of the ’70s. He’s rueful that baseball may have shed the last vestiges of its soul:

“All of those men were, for better or worse, as much or more a part of their team’s identity as the players themselves, and I can’t think of any owner in today’s game who has anywhere near the same kind of charisma, or who has the same ability to grab headlines or turn the game on its head. Sadly, the economics and the increasing corporatization of major league baseball in the 21st century make it extremely unlikely that we’ll ever see those kind of maverick owners in the game again.”

Saying farewell to the baseball game story

On Tuesday I write about developments in sports media, and occasionally step back in time to a different era in sports journalism.

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For those who read about last night’s game in this morning’s paper, the following sentence from the Associated Press explaining its new baseball game story format must be an absolutely cold jolt of soulless jargon:

“The format allows consumers to more easily see interesting content, and it can be read faster across platforms.”

Braves Game Story 2006

AJC Braves game story and sidebar, 2006, when Andruw Jones could hit.

Consumers? Content? Platforms?

You’re a baseball fan. You crave a story about a game. It might be the newspaper, it might be online, but just tell me what happened. That’s all.

You want to do more than see interesting content. You want to know why the game played out as it did, in real sentences and full paragraphs, one seamlessly connected to another.

Maybe you don’t have, or want, all the latest cool apps to “see” highlights in the moment. You don’t “follow” a game on social media. You’re not going to stay up to watch SportsCenter. But you’ve got a few minutes before going off to work, or to do other things, and faster doesn’t always mean better.

You are in a distinct minority that’s growing smaller.

When AP revealed its new plans last month, the story attracted a few shrugs of the shoulder and an occasional yawn. Shorter stories, with more bullet points, aimed online readers and those using mobile devices, will become the rule for AP-produced stories starting July 28.

At The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where I worked for nearly two decades, editors liked to call these people “time-starved readers.”

To AP powers-that-be, they’re “consumers,” to be peddled a journalism product as if a game story is like soap, cereal and light bulbs.

I know. I’m sorry. Get off my lawn and give me some old-fashioned narrative, damnit. You can take your “content” and . . . well, go elsewhere.

The truth is, for a number of years traditional newspaper-style stories — even staff-written reports about local teams — haven’t been what we knew growing up. Notebooks in copy-block style are nothing new. In my ink-stained wretch days, I wrote so frequently this way I didn’t realize it had become so commonplace. Inverted pyramid, it was nice knowing you. But we haven’t danced since 1996.

As papers have downsized their staffs, they’ve slimmed down their space. Some, like my former employer, have gotten a bit grayer while retaining the narrative form, at least for print.

Who keeps score like this any more -- or at all?

Who keeps score like this any more -- or at all?

Online, it’s a different matter, and that’s what prompted the AP changes.

Gone will be the standard 600-page game story, replaced by a 300-word summary followed by bullet-point highlights about the game, including key plays, injuries and what’s coming up next for the teams in question. Later on, a 600-page “writethru,” which contains quotes and stands as the final version, will be offered, along with a hometown lead.

The changes are designed not only for easier reading, but also for easier editing.

Given the number of games in a season, and how sports fans are consuming so much more than a game story, it’s not hard to understand why this is happening. There will be another game tonight, and tomorrow after that, and the day after tomorrow after that, and . . .

But AP’s new format comes as other standard fare for baseball lovers has been fading away.

In 2010, ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian penned a sentimental piece about giving up the daily habit of clipping Major League box scores from the newspaper. That’s because papers have been scaling back on printing them, and Kurkjian used to clip every single one. Every single day.

While the clutter of nearly two decades was cleared away from his house, so was the tactile experience of finding a baseball narrative in a two-column set of numbers:

“The box scores start every day for me because there’s always a chance you’ll see a pitching or batting line that you’ve never seen before, and might never see again, such as Ben Petrick’s 3-0-0-4 a few years ago. Four RBIs without a hit! ‘I thought I had a bad day,” Petrick said, ‘until I looked at the box score.’ The box score is where we once saw the battery for the Tigers of Glenn Abbott and Marty Castillo — Abbott and Castillo — and the Giants’ famed Bud Black-Steve Decker battery — Black and Decker, of which great writer Steve Rushin wrote: Decker wore ‘the power tools of ignorance.” ‘

Box scores ain't what they used to be.

Box scores ain't what they used to be.

Now, any fan can easily call up a standard box score and tight, traditional game story on the marvelous MLB At-Bat app, along with video highlights that are posted moments after a homerun, great play in the field or controversial call. Why follow the game at all with this? You’ve got all you need about a game, in a flash.

I have descended into this glorious new habit, and can’t remember the last time I kept a scorecard.

There are still diehards who do, however, and they also realize they’re part of a dying breed, as NPR profiled them recently:

“What I find remarkable is that there are still a few people who bring the spiral-bound scorecards. And it’s not the scorecard you buy at the game. It’s a spiral-bound thing that you can buy at, I guess, certain stores where they just keep track on each page of that particular game. Those are the really serious scorers. There are a few of those.”

For these hardy few, this will never, ever be about mere “content.”

The Midsummer Classic and the American pastime

July is the time for Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game and Hall of Fame induction, so I’ll be devoting some posts this week to topics related to baseball’s future — and as always the case with this sport — and exploring how its past is immortalized.

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I’m going through withdrawal. Serious, serious soccer withdrawal.

This has been the case every four years, in mid-July, for the last 20 years now. A red-blooded American whose first love was baseball. I need a syringe and some soccer serum. Stat.

Today is the day after the end of the World Cup, which used to pass virtually unnoticed in the United States. After record TV ratings and unprecedented American mainstream media coverage from Brazil, however, that is no longer the case. Now, I have plenty of company dealing with my Summertime Blues.

When these blues began, following the World Cup in the U.S. in 1994, they were exacerbated by the baseball strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years.

There wasn’t much else in the way of soccer to turn to back then, before the creation of Major League Soccer and the airing of games from the English Premier League, Bundesliga, et al, on American television. My local minor league team drew fans in the hundreds and played on a deplorable high school football field, but it was better than nothing.

national pastimeI was ready to turn my back on baseball, even as my hometown Atlanta Braves finally — after years of childhood suffering! — won the World Series the following year. While I was happy, it was a fleeting moment of joy. For me, the American pastime was starting to feel like the past time.

While soccer may have become the shiny new toy for Americans like me, we still had to endure potshots from sportswriters claiming that “hating soccer is more American than apple pie.”

Shortly after France ‘98 (a most miserable World Cup for the U.S.), I took in a Braves game at Turner Field and was surprised how serious my affliction had become. I was ready to leave in the early innings, but was with family and painfully watched Mark Wohlers blow a perfectly good save opportunity.

The sport, and the happiness of going to the ballpark, had lost its luster.

I have been back only a few times since. I have gradually made my peace with baseball, realizing that the zero-sum silliness that infects our politics, culture and society — you must make a choice, and stick with it — was depriving me of the joy of a game that will always resonate for me.

It’s just happening in different ways that I’m savoring in middle age.

The All-Star Game this week isn’t always a circle-your-calendar event for casual fans — I haven’t watched in years — but for baseball diehards it will always be special. Even though an All-Star Futures Game now kicks off the festivities (sorry, Home Run Derby), this event is a throwback to one of baseball’s most enduring traditions.

Like many of those traditions — good and otherwise — it’s about preserving a treasured slice of the game’s past. Tuesday’s game at Target Field will be highlighted by Derek Jeter’s farewell. While the game features players who’ve had great first half-seasons, tributes to retiring legends still strike the deepest chords.

Later this month in Cooperstown, Braves luminaries Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux will be inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and that too will be emotional. Though they weren’t the idols of my youth, they brought my hometown its only professional sports championship during a time in which I was trying to tune baseball out.

I see some present-day American soccer aficionados making the same ridiculous assertions I once did — baseball’s truly boring, etc. — and firmly stuck in the past. It feeds too much on nostalgia and mythology and a faux-pastoral sentiment that never really existed, etc., etc.

Never mind that a new wave of fans and writers tied in to sabermetrics was revitalizing how we look at baseball, creating a template for advanced stats and fresh narratives that are abounding in other sports.

Finally, the fifty-something and the amateur sports historian in me came around to appreciating a more well-rounded, nuanced view, as expressed by Andrew Zimbalist and Stefan Szymanski in their 2005 book, “National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the World Plays Soccer:”

” . . . our national pastimes did not materialize out of nothing. Rather, they were shaped by the conscious decisions of organizers, albeit decisions made a very long time ago. No doubt some, if not most, of these decisions were made with the intent of promoting and developing the sport over the long term.

“One distinctive feature of professional sports is that the interest of the public accumulates over time. Indeed, one of the most important elements in the attraction of a sport is the the relationship between the stars of today and the history of the game.”

(Book excerpt here.)

But the hand-wringing is ramping up again. As the World Cup got underway, Frank Fitzpatrick of The Philadelphia Inquirer expressed serious worries that baseball is about to take a big hit, thanks to soccer:

“It’s cosmopolitan. It’s colorful. And because we Americans know so little of its history and customs, it is, for the moment at least, a fascinating curiosity.

“Soccer is the barista’s game, baseball the hot dog vendor’s.”

But Fitzpatrick, who also compared baseball to the Republican Party — “too old . . . too white . .. perceived as too square” — makes the mistake of pitting “winners” against “losers,” a familiar, quick and easy device. Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk writes that Fitzpatrick’s argument not only is “wrongheaded and insulting about baseball,” it also:

” . . . manages to insult the World Cup as well by not discussing it on its own terms as opposed to in terms of baseball’s alleged demise.

“Then again, the author refers to a game involving ‘the Florida Marlins’ from just last week, so maybe we’re not dealing with a guy who knows a whole hell of a lot about anything.”

This is hitting it out of the park, and booting it like Messi all at one. The rise of one thing doesn’t have to mean the downfall of another. Midsummer Classic

But it’s hard to deny there’s an ever-crowded soccer bandwagon. The World Cup set numerous social media records but remains a niche sport– albeit a rapidly growing one — in the United States.

As ESPN concluded its stellar World Cup run Sunday night, it smartly segued to a Major League Soccer grudge match between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbersbefore nearly 65,000 fans in an NFL stadium. There’s your post-Cup soccer fix, American footyheads. The addiction never has to end.

David Brooks of The New York Times contemplated the baseball-or-soccer-metaphor for life question over the weekend, and came to this conclusion:

“Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer. We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize.”

None of this should spell any doom for baseball. As the World Series approached last fall, Jonathan Mahler, also of The New York Times, raised concerns about the future for baseball, which he said “has never been healthier. So why does it feel irrelevant?” Yet post-season baseball is as compelling as anything in sports, including the odd infield fly rule call in a wild card game!

Mahler offers some hopefulness that explains why baseball is likely to endure, in spite of the mawkish sentimentality of the baseball poets:

“Maybe a new generation of fans won’t grow up thinking the game represents something more than it is. Maybe baseball will stop auditioning for another chapter in the Ken Burns saga. Maybe baseball can just be baseball. Yes, it’s quiet and slow, but if you hang in there, through all of the pitching changes and batting-glove adjustments, you might get caught up in the drama. If you don’t, there’s plenty else to watch.”

Sports History Files: Remembering Alfredo Di Stéfano

One of Argentina’s — and the world’s — greatest soccer players ever never played in a World Cup.

Alfredo Di Stéfano, who died on Monday at the age of 88, was one of the central figures of the great Real Madrid teams that won five consecutive European Cup titles in the late 1950s.

After the end of World War II, Di Stéfano, the Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskás and Real Madrid ushered in the rise of top European club competition with their feats that continued into their mid-30s.

marca di stefano tributeKnown now as the glamorous — and ever lucrative — Champions League, the event’s latest champion is its most decorated one, as Real Madrid downed crosstown rivals Atlético Madrid in May for its 10th title.

In 58 European Cup matches, Di Stéfano scored 49 goals. But the European Cup, and the Spanish domestic game, would be his biggest stage.

After starring for the great Buenos Aires side River Plate in the 1940s, Di Stéfano left for Colombia during an Argentine players’ strike in 1948.

He was eligible to play for Argentina in 1950 and 1954, the first two World Cup years after World War II, but the Argentine federation withdrew both times.

Di Stéfano became a Spanish citizen in 1956, but Spain didn’t qualify for the 1958 World Cup. In 1962, Spain did reach the finals in Chile, but he was injured and at the age of 35 didn’t play for the national team again. He later played for Real Madrid’s biggest enemy, Barcelona, whose daily sports paper, Marca (above), paid Di Stéfano tribute in its Tuesday editions.

Later a club coach in Argentina and Spain, Di Stéfano was a constant presence around the Real Madrid camp well into old age. He died after suffering a heart attack while eating out near Real Madrid’s vaunted home ground, Estadio Bernabéu.

Former England star Bobby Charlton said of Di Stéfano:

“I had never seen such a complete footballer. It was as though he had set up his own command center at the heart of the game. He was as strong as he was subtle. You just could not keep your eyes off him.”

Tim Vickery, a British soccer writer who has long reported from South America, puts Di Stéfano in the same company as Pelé and Diego Maradona when asked about the greatest player of all time:

“I think I’m on safe ground arguing arguing there has never been a footballer more influential than Alfredo Di Stéfano.”

Even Pelé concurred:

“For me Di Stéfano is the best. He was much more complete.”

A moment of silence was held in Di Stéfano’s honor before Wednesday’s World Cup semifinal match won by Argentina over The Netherlands.

In an Argentina that has produced Maradona and now Lionel Messi after him, Di Stéfano’s name is being invoked, not just in remembrance, but in anticipation of Sunday’s championship match in Rio de Janeiro against Germany. As Latin American soccer author Andreas Campomar wrote Thursday:

“If [Messi] leads Argentina into the final against Germany, he will take his place alongside Di Stéfano as the greatest the continent has to offer.”

Midweek Books: From Galeano to Golazo!

On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.

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“Every time the national team plays, no matter against whom, the country holds its breath. Politicians, singers and street vendors shut their mouths, lovers suspend their caresses.”

– Eduardo Galeano, “Soccer in Sun and Shadow”

Golazo!In the introduction to his newly released “Golazo!,” his thorough history of Latin American soccer through the prism of nationalism, author Andreas Campomar cites the above quotation from his fellow Uruguayan, whose own book about the sport remains a literary and cultural touchstone.

Future editions of Golazo! may still keep that remark up front, with a fresh and startling new reference point: Brazil’s humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany Tuesday in the World Cup semifinals.

This is already being regarded as a far, far worse catastrophe than the 1950 World Cup final Brazil lost 2-1 to Uruguay before nearly 200,000 at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracaña Stadium. Author Alex Bellos dubbed it the “Fateful Final,” as Brazilian keeper Barbosa was haunted by the late winning goal to his near post for decades:

“The opposition is irrelevant. Brazil is always playing against itself, against its own demons, against the ghosts of the Maracaña. The Fateful Final is a metaphor for all Brazilian defeats.”

Will the mourning and loathing over Tuesday’s dreadful semifinal top all that? ”Maracanazo,” as the 1950 game has been called, surely looks set to be replaced by “Mineirazo,” taken from the name of the stadium in Belo Horizonte where a first-half German assault resulted in a shocking new national trauma for Brazil. Brazil Papers 1-7

It’s not an exaggeration to use such words — catastrophe, trauma and more — as Campomar ably explains. The story of soccer in Latin America is littered with tragedy, tied so often as it is to national political and economic fortunes — or, more commonly, misfortunes.

For the richest nation of them all, in soccer and more belatedly in economic terms, the dramatics can seem over the top. Before the World Cup began, Campomar, wrote in The New York Times that Brazil “has no choice but to win the tournament.” The headline: “The Weight of the World Rests on Brazil.”

On Wednesday, noted Brazilian journalist Juca Kfouri wrote in Folha da São Paulo that “Brazilian football was reduced to dust” in a column entitled,“Dante’s Inferno.”

Hyperbole? Certainly not in Brazil, as the second-day inquest includes the common sight of other headlines and signs all around the country bearing the word “vergonha” — shame. As the shock and sadness settle in, further anger and rage at the utter destruction of a national team figure to carry on for months and years.

Azageta MassacreCampomar’s tour of the continental sport, ranging from Brazil’s penta — its record of five World Cup titles — to the struggles of landlocked Bolivia and Paraguay to become even nominally competitive, seamlessly blends soccer aspirations with national identity. When the results on the field come up short, there is understandable concern about the well-being of societies. (Review here in The Economist.)

And when political and social disasters occur, soccer is helplessly swept up. The strongest sections of “Golazo!” are Campomar’s examinations of what he calls the dark ages of the 1970s, which culminated in Argentina’s first World Cup title, played at home in 1978 during a military dictatorship and the genocide of “The Disappeared.”

“Argentinians would conceal their their pain beneath the national flag. The victory, however, showed the frailty of Argentinian culture: that a society so terrorized could be anesthetized by the ephemerality of a single sporting triumph. This was football as sedation.”

That decade, Campomar concluded even more unsparingly, “was a decade of untold cruelty, one in which Latin America had all but lost her way in the world:”

He also marks that period as the starting point for the demise of Brazil’s vaunted artful playing style made famous by Pelé — O Jogo Bonito — and that was shockingly absent during the present World Cup.

The saga of Diego Maradona was even more reflective, Campomar argues, of the society that produced him, especially his infamous “Hand of God” incident in the 1986 World Cup semifinals that also included a magnificent second score, as he slalomed his way past English defenders:

“And yet it was the most Argentinian of goals: the cult of the individual at work.”

Here too Campomar may need to revise this theory given the current performance of Lionel Messi. And surely other updates are needed to account for the return of beautiful soccer by Colombia, which like fellow South American side Chile fell to Brazil in the current World Cup, and the enigmatic Uruguayan star Luis Suarez, banished after biting an Italian opponent during a group match.

Although “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” was a gimlet-eyed look at the global game, Galeano’s lyrical portrait, first published in 1998, was informed by the sense of playfulness and artfulness of the game in South America during his youth. The Marxist novelist is him is famously revealed in the opening pages: soccer in sun and shadow

“The history of soccer is a voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became and industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots. . . . Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and many spectators, soccer for watching. . . . The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.”

Nearing the conclusion of his book, Campomar circles back to these pressures on the sport in Brazil in the wake of its 3-0 loss to France in the 1998 World Cup finals, another national disaster that prompted a Congressional inquiry. Brazil got its penta at the following World Cup in 2002, as Ronaldo redeemed himself. But the jolt to Brazil’s national — and not just sporting — psyche, is seemingly permanent, and hauntingly prophetic today:

“Brazil had come to enjoy a somewhat symbiotic relationship with the World Cup. She had become everyone’s favorite, a parody of herself. To those who examined the country closely, there was now something distasteful about her quest to win another World Cup. Not only did it suggest gluttony, there was also a degree of narcissism at play. At times, Brazil seemed to be competing against her own history rather than against another nation.”

Soccer historian and “Futebol Nation” author David Goldblatt hopes the demolition of Brazil — the national team — might spur some cold reality about finally addressing more pressing needs for Brazil, the country:

“I suspect that a victory in 2014 would have resulted in a similar absolution of the people and institutions that have run this World Cup. That the broken promises to the poor, the squandered opportunities for progressive urban redevelopment, the widespread and shameless stealing that has characterized the seven years since the tournament was awarded to Brazil, would all be, if not forgotten rendered utterly marginal. That is going to be a much harder act to pull off. But as Carlos Drummond de Andrade, the mid-century Brazilian poet and football chronicler, wrote in 1982 after the famous defeat to Italy – it’s time for Brazil to wipe its tears, roll up its sleeves and get back to the serious business of political reform.”

Quantifying the art of Lionel Messi

On Tuesday I write about developments in sports media, and occasionally step back in time to a different era in sports journalism.

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Words often fail when the subject is Lionel Messi, even from those who are wordier than most.

Famous for declaring the Argentine star “a magnetic spectrum of genius,” and “magisterial Leo!” among other ornate monikers, the American-based Geordie soccer commentator Ray Hudson is left squealing like a little boy more often than not.

Messi’s only 27, but his Barcelona exploits have long been the stuff of legend. Playing in his third World Cup, he’s finally shining on that stage for Argentina, which meets The Netherlands Wednesday in the semifinals.

Before the knockout stage got underway, Benjamin Morris of Five Thirty Eight unfurled a comprehensive analysis of Messi’s game that illustrates the ideal use of advanced statistics. Sometimes metrics can create a whole new narrative, but in “Messi is Impossible,” Morris uses numbers to show Messi’s effectiveness with astonishing depth.

Some may think a numerical approach isn’t necessary. Messi’s the greatest player on the planet; all you have to do is watch. Well, yes, but why, and more importantly, how?

There is the familiar, often-recounted tale of Messi leaving his home in Rosario, Argentina at age 13, to train and learn in Barcelona’s famous La Masia youth academy.

But the clickbait-style headline aside, Morris expands our understanding of Messi’s brilliance in ways that mere words, and the stirring tale of a precocious soccer upbringing, simply cannot.

Messi Graph (Morris)Morris pulled four years’ worth of statistics from Opta, a British sports data firm that specializes in soccer, and compared Messi to his few true peers — Portuguese and Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo in particular. Across this wide spectrum of measurements — shooting and scoring production, passing accuracy, creation of scoring chances and how often they lead to goals — Messi rates at, or near, the top, in just about every one of them.

But Morris also looked at where on the field Messi shoots from, how effectively he takes on defenders, and even how he kicks the ball to help guide his assessment. The final product — and it’s a very, very long post with lots of graphics — is as inexhaustible as Messi’s game. Morris concludes he couldn’t get everything into his post that he wanted:

“It’s not possible to shoot more efficiently from outside the penalty area than many players shoot inside it. It’s not possible to lead the world in weak-kick goals and long-range goals. It’s not possible to score on unassisted plays as well as the best players in the world score on assisted ones. It’s not possible to lead the world’s forwards both in taking on defenders and in dishing the ball to others. And it’s certainly not possible to do most of these things by insanely wide margins.

“But Messi does all of this and more.”

Sifting through chart after chart, metric after metric — some I never knew existed, like “Number of Long Balls Played from Midfield” and “Value Added vs. Total Offensive Participation” — I felt my head was going to explode. I’m still grinding my way from being a math-phobic journalist, but it’s a very gradual process.

There’s no way to understand even a little of this in one sitting, yet I was ecstatic drowning in the wondrous ways that exist to analyze how Messi does what he does. Here’s another insight from Morris, based on detailed numbers-crunching, that really jumped out at me:

“The percentage of shots Messi makes from outside the penalty area is absolutely stunning. He scores almost as often per shot from outside the penalty area (12.1 percent) as most players do inside it (13.1 percent).”

When Messi did that, against Iran in the dying moments of a group match for a 1-0 Argentina win, it was something that has been seen many times before. It was the stuff of genius, of a small-sized man finding a sliver of space to destroy an opponent. Knowing those numbers above makes it so much easier to appreciate Messi’s talents. thenumbersgame

“The Numbers Game,” published last year, is the definitive book about metrics in soccer, which like other sports has some media naysayers, or at least skeptics.

Morris’ post is a valuable addition to a still-emerging field. Unlike baseball and basketball, soccer doesn’t lend itself to the easy cataloging of stats from a box score. And like American football, it’s easy to misinterpret the value of possession.

Few soccer teams possess the ball like Barcelona, and fewer individuals still can display a dazzling array of talent with the ball at their feet like Messi.

There just aren’t enough ways to savor Messi, in other words.

So I’ll give Hudson the final word about all this, uttered after a Messi goal against Real Sociedad in early 2013. When numbers aren’t enough, there is this Messi platitude:

“Like Oliver Twist . . . he wants more. He never just says, ‘Please, sir.’ He just takes it.”

Monday, Monday: Leafblowers and LeBron Twitter

On Monday my post is generally related to a timely sports topic prominently in the news, is focused on the business of sports or covers a sports subject at random.

* * * * * * * *

I just Tweeted the above headline, but deleted it and thought those two things actually have something more in common than I first realized.

At 8 a.m., as I was still waking up, landscaping crews began their weekly leafblowing ritual through my community, which is sort of strange for the middle of summer.

There aren’t many leaves to be cleared from the streets and walking paths, and not much debris: A waste of time and expense, and a whole lot of mindless noise, with nothing accomplished.

Which is what my (admittedly limited) Twitter feed feels like this morning: All LeBron, all the time, as NBA free agency ramps up.

Credentialed reporters at mainstream news outlets Tweeting “hunches” and “gut instincts” instead of verified facts.

It’s a relentless, crude grab for the attention of readers, and to prop up those increasingly fleeting credentials with scoops, or at least creating the appearance of being ahead of a story.

As Sports Illustrated’s media reporter, Richard Deitsch, has been peppering his Twitter feed over the weekend:

But it’s not just about ESPN, which infamously brought us “The Decision,” pushing its new SportsCenter set.

It’s what far too much of the sports media has become — and for too long now — in the chase for eyeballs and attention. These Tweets in particular, from an employee of the WWL and ostensibly an NBA reporter, are all the rage for the moment:

He’s just pulling this out of his ass, but he knows there are legions out there happily retweeting his drivel. Tens of thousands of them.

This was late Sunday night; Broussard hasn’t Tweeted since.

Even Adrian Wojnarowski, the respected NBA writer for Yahoo! Sports, has taken to Twitter to chime in on James. He appears to have more meat on the bone:

It’s all speculation at this point — sources! after all. Yet based on his past work — and Broussard’s — I know whom to trust when “The Decision II” is revealed.

If any of these reporters turn out to be wrong — and some will, because they’re spewing out just about everything — don’t expect any mea culpas.

However, what social media steals from brain-cell development, it also rewards with these pitch-perfect ripostes to Broussard’s windbaggery:

I really hope Leitch doesn’t have to come back with another column explaining all this away if Broussard is actually right.

But some days, such as a Monday in the dog days of summer, these cheap little vignettes (laced with necessary humor) hit just the right chord.

I hate it when I can’t resist the temptation of falling down the rabbit hole of bitching about sports media. This blog is aiming for a higher road, and today I couldn’t stay on it. Instead, I ended up rolling around in the ditch of sportz.

(And my apologies for the bad words. There is profanity, and there is cussing, and I usually prefer the former. Today, the latter prevails. I do feel better, though.)

But sometimes, a good rant about the hot-air noise of media leafblowers like Broussard is the only way I can think of to rise, to paraphrase an anti-sportz acquaintance, above what we’ve been sold.

Sports History Files: Remembering Louis Zamperini

Louis Zamperini, an Olympic distance runner, World War II prisoner of war and the subject of an acclaimed biography by Laura Hillenbrand, has died at the age of 97.

Zamperini’s life was recounted in “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” and published in 2010.

He was a track star at USC, making the U.S. Olympic team at the 1936 Games in Berlin, where he shook hands with Hitler and later stole a Nazi flag from the German Reichschancellery.

UnbrokenServing in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific Theater, Zamperini survived 47 days adrift in a life raft after his bomber plane was shot down in May 1944. He was captured by the Japanese, enduring beatings and other mistreatment for more than a year until the war’s end.

Zamperini was adrift in other ways in the first years after the war, not unlike many World War II veterans. His marriage was threatened by his alcoholism, but hearing a sermon by Billy Graham changed his life. He had a long career in commercial real estate and wrote two memoirs before Hillenbrand penned her biography.

A Coen brothers film based on Hillenbrand’s book will be released in December, starring Jack O’Connell and Angelina Jolie, who is also the director.

Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Steve Oney talked to Hillenbrand after the release of “Unbroken” about how she came to do the book, as she talked about her battle with chronic fatigue syndrome that has left her largely homebound:

“I’m attracted to subjects who overcome tremendous suffering and learn to cope emotionally with it.”

Hillenbrand said Zamperini’s resilience came from his rebellious nature:

“As a boy he was a hell-raiser. He refused to be corralled. When someone pushed him he pushed back. That made him an impossible kid but an unbreakable man.”

Zamperini offered his own thanks to his biographer:

“Laura brought my war buddies back to life. The fact that Laura has suffered so much enabled her to put our suffering into words.”

Bringing the story to film has been something of an ordeal that others have experienced for decades, as Jolie found out.

Sports longform and soccer: An ideal match

As the World Cup got started a couple weeks ago I laid out a rambling summary of how various media outlets — including more traditional ones — were jumping on the soccer bandwagon.

What I didn’t do was get into was how the new longform sports sites have excelled in covering the sport all along. We’re truly seeing this now, and the jaw-dropping quality of British journalist Sam Knight’s May Grantland piece, “The Rise of the Red Devils” details much more than how a national soccer team evolved.

Knight writes a deeply-reported, richly nuanced story about the evolution of a Belgian nation that has had historical identity problems. The Red Devils rose as high as No. 5 in FIFA rankings in the last year, and their run at the World Cup probably won’t have a long-term discernible effect on that society. But this is the kind of story that American readers used to find only on a British newspaper site, or perhaps in The New York Times.

05-15-knight-beligum1Soccer-and-society stories in such skilled hands are now becoming standard fare for American sports websites that have cropped up since the last World Cup, Grantland especially, but Knight’s work is truly exceptional:

“And for a time, it appeared as if soccer — like Belgium’s school system, its bar association, and its Boy Scouts — would split along linguistic lines. More than 400 clubs defected. The bifurcation might have become permanent, but then Flemish football took a turn for the fascist. Vranken was succeeded by Robert Verbelen, a right-wing nationalist who admired the sporting intensity of Hitler’s Germany and who would go on to found the Flemish SS after the Nazi invasion of 1940. “A great miracle took place,” Verbelen wrote that summer inVolk en Staat, a Flemish nationalist newspaper. “Out of the east there came a people, a superior broedervolk (fraternal people) … Flemish people will not stay behind.” After the war, Verbelen fled to Austria and soccer separatism disappeared with him. The Belgian FA published its rules in Dutch, and football became strikingly national and harmonious. The only unwritten rule, present in the mind of every Red Devils coach, was to pick a roughly equal number of Flemish and French-speaking players. Crowds watching the national team chanted in English to circumvent the language problem.

“This was the unhappily balanced environment into which immigrants, mainly from around the Mediterranean Sea and North Africa, but also from farther south, began arriving in large numbers in the late 1980s. The demographic shift was a shock, particularly in Belgium’s urban centers, many of which had aging, shrinking populations. Unlike in, for example, Paris, the poorer districts of many Belgian cities are centrally located, so the newcomers — young Africans, Turks, and Moroccans, looking for work and bearing children — were particularly visible. A series of immigrant riots, mainly over joblessness and cramped housing, shook the country in the spring of 1991. Immigration also forced many ordinary Belgians to confront their country’s colonial shame in Congo. Between 1885 and 1908, the enormous central African state, 80 times the size of Belgium, was owned as a personal possession of the Belgian King Leopold II. Millions of Congolese died in a genocidal rubber production program that made Belgium rich.”

When Grantland started up three years ago, it pried away Run of Play blogger Brian Phillips to write about soccer and other sports, and he’s among the growing army of American-born writers establishing a viable presence in expanding soccer space. Someone I also like is Noah Davis, who’s writes in so many places, and is filing for American Soccer Now from the World Cup.

I particularly liked his 2012 piece on German soccer in World War II that’s part of the excellent SB Nation Longform series. And if you saw the SB Nation homepage this morning, in advance of the USA-Belgium game, it’s all about one thing. SB Nation Cover 7-1-2104

There’s also no small amount of pretentiousness in some of this new-fangled soccer prose. For my money Tomas Rios, a frequent contributor to Sports on Earth, is the best (or should that be worst?) in show in this category. His heavy-handed attempt to weave the present-day Chilean national team with that country’s history of political violence, and especially the post-Allende Pinochet regime, just doesn’t work. Here’s a classic example of how not to write a soccer-and-politics diatribe:

“For Chile, the cost remains tangible. Pinochet is rightly remembered as a vicious authoritarian, but he was also a dreadfully stupid man beholden to the American interests that enabled his rise. This is best illustrated by his reliance on the so-called Chicago Boys, a group of young male Chilean economists trained in the University of Chicago’s economics department by neoliberal forefathers Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger. The group filled key roles in Chile’s finance, education and government and used Chile as a test lab for advancing an agenda of privatizing public services and extreme economic deregulation. Unfortunately, the half-life of such policies is much longer than that of any dictatorship and can be seen both in Chile’s wealthy ruling class and its place as one of the 15 most economically unequal countries in the world. Yet again, a leader of the Chilean national team served as the bellwether of an ongoing resistance.”

If you reach far down enough between the cushions, you’ll dig out a few coins of soccer in there. There’s no mention of the very liberal presidency on Michelle Bachelet, who’s on her second stint in office.

But Rios has a penchant for this sort of thing, taking a bludgeon to sports business-and-culture topics on decidedly non-sports sites, and has taken it upon himself to bash overt myopia in the supposed Golden Age of Sportswriting. It’s always too easy to apply contemporary social tastes and standards to another time and denounce it, tossing in a couple of contemporary comparisons to illustrate a continuity.

Fortunately, Sports on Earth has plenty others writing much better on soccer: stick to my friend Chuck Culpepper, a newspaper refugee, and Will Leitch, a Deadspin refugee, and you can’t go wrong.

For the most part, the emergence of American soccer journalism online is every bit as good as what those of us of a certain age read on The Guardian and other British newspaper sites. And while I’m still partial to the quirky, non-commercial voice of When Saturday Comes, the soccer writing on the independent site The Classical (launched through a Kickstarter campaign) has some flair and iconoclasm, as demonstrated by Conor Huchton on the U.S. men’s national team.

If pre-match analysis is your thing (as well as the post-game variety), The Shinguardian blog is as good as anything.

What this work all demonstrates is the abiding passion of a younger generation of writers, most of them men under 40, who grew up playing, or at least watching soccer as it became more abundant on U.S. airwaves. I can’t think of a better way to end this post than to reference Andy Glockner, formerly of Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com, and who now oversees the sports vertical at the newish Medium site.

In his first posting there, just as the World Cup was set to kick off, he wrote an impassioned piece on what it was like to grow up playing soccer in “U.S. Soccer’s Dark Ages,” when World Cup appearances and games on television were a pipe dream.

His writing style (as well as his Twitter account) can be exasperating, and I mean that in a good way. But there’s no mistaking what’s driving him and so many of his brothers-in-arms. This is their moment to shine, and they are helping a once-indifferent soccer nation better appreciate where they’ve been. Glockner may just be the king of the hardcores:

“We have moved from consuming the World Cup on TNT (with commercials inserted right into the middle of matches) to ESPN leading the charge with world-class coverage, from almost no availability of foreign club matches in this country to multiple TV networks battling over big-money rights. We’ve gone from MLS being played in front of modest crowds in ill-suited venues to a country with soccer-specific stadiums and players making millions of dollars a year playing soccer for a living. We’ve transformed ourselves from nobodies into the best team in our region and one of the better ones in the world. If you lived through this entire process, you know how stunning this all is.

“This helps explain why, in 2010, I openly cried on my couch after Landon Donovan’s goal beat Algeria. It also explains why one of the greatest thrills of my professional career was receiving an email from Bruce Murray, one of the stalwarts of the 1990 World Cup team, saying he liked a soccer story I had written. I was a fan of his long before he was one of mine.”

Sports, the arts and the gloriously obscure

On Saturday night, while serendipitously flipping through channels, I reached ESPN Classic and for the first time watched “Bud Greenspan: At the Heart of the Games.”

This was released in early 2008, right before what would be Greenspan’s final Olympics in Beijing. It was a documentary film about how the Olympic documentary filmmaker came to be, and why he excelled at it, and for two incredible hours I was transfixed at the behind-the-scenes details of a master of his form.

Greenspan essentially had the field to himself when he finally dug in and devoted himself to the form, starting with the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. His eye for the well-told story of obscure athletes from small nations competing in little-known sports (at least to average Americans like myself) is well-known.

What I was struck by the most were his tales of the “losers,” of those who never medalled, barely showed up and sometimes struggled to finish.

In Mexico City in 1968, the raised fists of John Carlos and Tommie Smith were the unforgettable and iconic images of a contentious time. And then there was Greenspan’s telling of Tanzanian marathoner’s John Stephen Akhwari’s determination to cross the finish line, dead last, hours after Mamo Wolde had been awarded the gold medal.

Some might think this was whitewashing controversy with a heartwarming tale to please the establishment — the Olympic ideal of a classic expression of the human spirit was uplifted, after all. But this was the essential Greenspan, as he famously, and unapologetically continued along this vein through Beijing.

I wrote as the London Games began that the Olympics were missing their most famous lens. But when Greenspan died in late 2010, he took that eye with him. His was a unique and novel perspective, honestly told without contrivance. Another tale involved David Moorcroft, the British 5,000-meter runner who was the world record holder entering Los Angeles but, competing injured, fought against being lapped in that event by race leaders. Said Moorcroft:

“One of Bud’s great skills, and he does it in victory and in defeat, is putting it into perspective without overdramatizing things.”

This approach seems quaint now. It’s becoming a lost art form, and in saying this I mean no slight against the excellent 30 for 30 sports film series created by Bill Simmons and that includes the superb “The Two Escobars,” released before the 2010 World Cup.

I write all this because there is a point here, amid my rambling. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how wide-ranging this blog is, and what it says about my scattershot approach to covering sports through books, art, literature, music, culture, history and other “off field” topics. Many think that there’s not much overlap between sports and the arts, but I’m trying to explore that area here.

Sometimes I think I’m trying too hard, or just not pulling it off. There’s still too much of the detached newspaper reporter in me, my prose too impersonal, not “bloggy” enough, not engaged or connected with some fascinating subject matter. My posts feel forced, as I strenuously try to capture the space of a subject area that is hopelessly, but gloriously obscure.

I’m still striving for authoritativeness in a way that doesn’t fit the blog form. Online authority is authentic and reciprocal, not forced as in the one-way vehicle of print, and at times I forget that. I need to do a better job of discovering an audience for this, as small as it may be, and reach it.

Bud Greenspan went about what he did without much of a concern for commercial imperatives, and whether his storytelling would go over with an American public starving for stories about “winners” in competitions we dominate. It took some time for his methods to find that audience — and he was dogged in finding financiers for his projects. Yet his endearing legacy is cemented.

I’m not making any comparisons between my aspirations and what Greenspan accomplished. I’m intrigued by his example because I’ve been thinking a lot about lately about the imperatives of doing meaningful work, and diving really deep down into it, and enjoying the satisfactions that come with it. It’s not about money or making a splash with peers or getting it in front of the right eyeballs for the sake of career advancement. As deep-work advocate Cal Newport blogged last week:

“At some point, we tire of the shallow – necessary as it might be – and foster a desire to retreat into depth, create the best possible thing we’re capable of creating, then step back, point, and remark simply: ‘I did that.’ “

This all sounds very self-absorbed, but it’s a craving I have — to see sports through a different, more measured lens than what abounds in popular culture. I want to take a step back — a few, actually — and find context and perspective that never gets a nod in the immediacy of the page view- and ratings- driven world of contemporary sports media.

What I post here may seem unfocused and all over the place, but in my sportswriting career I have loved the variety of what I was assigned to cover. There’s a glorious messiness to going deeper into places few venture to visit. The challenge is making some sense and order of it while fashioning a viable online niche.

So here’s a thumbnail summary of what appears on this blog on designated weekdays:

    • Monday: Sports Potpourri: A timely sports topic prominently in the news and focused on the business of sports or a sports subject at random.
    • Tuesday: Sports Media: Developments in sports media, occasionally stepping back in time to a different era in sports journalism.
    • Wednesday: Midweek Books: Noteworthy new sports books are highlighted, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.
    • Thursday: Sports History Files: An issue, personality or event in sports history is examined, as is the field through books, authors and scholars.
    • Friday: Weekend Arts: Delving into sports and culture, including, but not limited to, history, literature, books, visual art, films and music as they relate to the world of athletics and recreation.