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.