My 2010s

I’ve only been blogging for nine years but ending the decade feels like a good time to look back on where this blog has been and how it’s changed from being about photography, museums, and sports to a lot more card collecting.

I still like photography and museums, I’ve just been in a bit of a rut ever since I moved to New Jersey. I need to get out more but I also need to be back in time to pick up the kids from school and I honestly just haven’t been inspired by my surroundings despite being here for six years.

Anyhoo, highlights from the past nine years of blogging. I made it to WordPress’s Discover (previously known as Freshly Pressed) twice. The first time was for a 2013 post about looking at photography which is really about dealing with the proliferation of any media. The second time was for a post about Atlee Hammaker and how, as a kid, I didn’t realize that he shared the same multicultural background I did.

I also had a moment of semi-virality in 2013 when I dashed off a quick (it’s always the quick posts that get you in trouble) post about “white guy photography” which took on a life of its own. I had to follow that up with some clarifications. That was an interesting ride and I’m not sure how people deal with that level of scrutiny and seething anger on a daily basis. I also shudder to think about what would’ve happened if that post had gone viral in the last half of this decade.

Another popular post was in 2014 and forshadowed my return to the hobby when I recognized that my childhood autograph collecting and current photography practices had a bit in common in terms of that push/pull between the process and the result. That reminder to enjoy the process rather than fixating on the result is possibly the single most important thread in my blogging. I don’t seek viewers or an audience, this is for my enjoyment and I just like the writing. That I only average, at most, one view an hour is still a lot more viewers than I ever expect to get.

For a blog where I wrote about sports a lot, I don’t have many sports posts listed on here and that’s because while I started out writing a bit about sports and fandom, the general theme on this blog has involved me drifting away from The Olympicsfootball, and Barcelona. Yes there are some posts in there which I liked but it’s been weird to chronicle and revist my abandonment of a lot of things I used to be a fan of.

The flip side of this is that I’ve also been able to write about my sons’ discover of baseball, especially minor league baseball. Over the past couple years I’ve been able to enjoy going to games with them and collecting cards and autographs with them and it’s been wonderful. I’ve rediscovered how baseball cards are one of the formative items in my childhood photography and design education and not only started blogging for SABR, I’m now the co-chair of the Baseball Card Committee.

This has meant that some of my favorite posts over the past couple years are actually on the SABR blog where I still write about photography and museums with posts about people like Mike Mandel, Cady Noland, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I’ve also particularly liked writing about the mental exercise of thinking about what it means to restore a baseball card as well taking a deep dive into R G Knowles and discovering the state of baseball in turn of the 20th century England.

Where will this blog go in the next ten years? Who knows. It’s been a fun ride so far and I owe everyone who’s read any of my posts a big thank you.

Surprise from Scott

Earlier this week I found the dreaded USPS plastic bag in my mailbox. I didn’t even need to read the note to know that the contents were a mangled package. In this case it was a half-ripped envelope that had clearly been folded in half despite the big DO NOT BEND writing on both sides. Ulp.

I opened it anyway and found a nice note from Scott Berger which referenced three cards. There were still three cards in the envelope so it appears everything came through unscathed. Moral of the story? Assume your envelope will bend and just make sure that you give it an obvious place to bend that’s not a card. Scott did this by having two toploaders side by side. The toploaders were fine and the envelope folded right between them.

Anyway enough about the packaging. Scott’s an Arizona State guy who watched a bunch of the same Pac 10 baseball players in Tempe that I did in Palo Alto. When he comes across Stanford cards he thinks of me. When I come across Arizona State cards I think of him.* There aren’t a lot of us doing college collecting projects so the company is nice to have.

*My end of this bargain has mainly been on Twitter since, unfortunately, the only Arizona State card I’ve come across in person is a card of Jacob Cruz which talks about him being drafted by the Giants.

The first card is a 2008 Donruss Elite card of Sean Ratliff. Ratliff played after I graduated but when I could still attend a decent number of games at Sunken Diamond. He wasn’t what I’d call a star of the team but he was always one of the more consistent players and it was no surprise to see him get drafted. He doesn’t have a lot of professional cardboard out there so it’s always nice to add a new one.

Ratliff’s been the hitting coach in Brooklyn for the past couple of seasons now. I might have to whip up a custom to send his way if he’s still there next season.

Bryce Love is a product of Stanford’s recent resurgence as a Football School™. I’m so done with football that I haven’t paid attention although my understanding is that things have reverted so Stanford Football is back in its traditional spot of propping up the table and no longer being the hot ticket on campus.

Still, it’s nice to add some variety to the album. Most of the football players I have are guys who played baseball but I’m gradually fleshing out the album with non-baseball-related cards. Not looking to be a completionist here like I am with trying to get all the Stanford Baseball Topps cards, it’s just nice to have some different designs and looks while I flip through the pages.

And the last card is just a wonderful Gary Carter Archives card. On the Expos like he’s supposed to be. With that pink color that’s a perfect choice for the Expos uniforms. In that fantastic 1959 design that I should dislike except for some reason it feels like the most-distinctive Trading Card™ design off all time.* I just wish that Topps had centered the names correctly.

*Seriously. It shows up around the world and there’s a reason my 10-year-old son chose it for his Halloween costume this year.

Thanks Scott! I’ll get you some ASU guys eventually.

Childhood Dentist

When you think about dentist offices and their decor, calming colors and framed prints of subjects that are pretty—and pretty forgettable—come to mind. The idea is to be relaxing while you flip through an old magazine and try not to think about what’s coming up.

My childhood dentist was different. In 1990, in the midst of the baseball card boom, every wall in his office was suddenly covered with framed cards. Nothing fancy—each frame featured a different 1990 release*—but very different than the standard dental office.

*Topps, Bowman, Donruss, Fleer, Score, and Upper Deck. Leaf was either too expensive or hadn’t yet released when he redecorated

As a baseball-card-mad kid this was very cool. My dentist liked to talk a lot while he worked and I got to hear about baseball and try and mumble responses while he was working. I think he even gave kids a pack of cards in addition to a toothbrush.

His office stayed like this for the next three decades. Not just baseball cards on the wall, the same cards year after year. Since he was my family dentist I continued to see him until I moved out of the state in my mid-30s. By then the cards had faded and none of us were as into the hobby as we had been. There was however something comforting seeing those frames full of 1990 junk wax where even the bright red Donruss design was trying to turn that sun-bleached cyan color.

Last summer he retired. Since my mom had apparently told him all about my reintegration into the hobby and how I’ve hooked both kids on it, she found herself with a bunch of frames as well as a big box of cards.

My mom took it upon herself to take all the cards out of the frames. The cards turned out to be glued into place so in addition to the sun damage the backs are all torn up. Besides the six 1990 selections there was also a frame of 1987 Fleer.* And there were a couple other frames that I was not familiar with.

*That cyan gradient on the 1987 Fleer design makes the cards look hella trippy when they fade since the gradient stays strongly cyan and just the photo fades. My brain ends up trying to substitute in more color to the gradient.

She sent me a photo to show me what she was dealing with. One of the frames nearly broke my heart. It was full of Red Man cards that had been faded beyond all hope. I took a closer look and figured they were reprints. Thankfully they were.

No idea when this reprint set was issued but it must have been around 1990 as well. The main tell, beyond everything having tabs, is that there’s a black border around each card. This border didn’t show up really well in the photo my mom sent me but once I received the big box of cards it was clear that these weren’t the real deal.

Still, as with all the sun-faded junk wax with ruined backs, these will go into the pile of cards for the boys to play with. Yes play. While they collect, they frequently also play games with the cards, comparing stats and other bits of trivia on the backs. If I knew the rules of 1960s card flipping I’d teach them that as well.

Not all the frames were sun-damaged though. There was one frame full of Giants postcards that survived the decades in decent shape. The backs are bit dinged but the fronts are almost all good.

Eleven of the cards are from 1983. This is the first year the Giants wore the uniforms I grew up with and the players here represent a team in transition. There are young guys like Bob Brenly and Chili Davis who’d help usher in the Roger Craig years. And there are a lot of older guys like Jim Barr and Johnnie LeMaster who symbolize the team of the 70s.

The Brenly photograph is fantastic—a classic catcher pose but also much better than the usual catchers poses. I love the Minton photograph which shows so much of the Candlestick stands. Also I’m not used to seeing Kuiper look so young.

The other nineteen cards are from 1988 and I recognized all the guys here without even having to think. Despite being all action images, these cards are photographed by the same photographer, Dennis Desprois, as the 1983 set and published by the Barry Colla company.

Desprois was the Giants photographer for  a long time. He’s also credited for the photos on the 1979 and 1980 KNBR SFPD sets* and the nature of the photos on here has me wondering if he and Barry Colla worked together on the Mother’s Cookies sets.

*Mentioned on here a few years ago.

These thirty postcards are probably the highlight of the dentist collection but there’s another couple thousand cards that my mom ended up sending to me so I’ll touch on the rest of the highlights.

As expected, much of the box was 1986–1994 junk wax. Too much to document and nothing really worth highlighting individually. Highlights are a near-complete 1991 Score set* and a sealed wax box of 1992 Topps.**

*Something I’m going to try and complete with my youngest son since his older brother just completed 1991 Topps earlier this year. We’ve finished sorting and while the set was missing two dozen cards I had most of them in my dupes box. So we only need four: 397 Rickey Henderson All Star, 403 Eric Davis Master Blaster, 412 Bo Jackson Rifleman, and 417 Nolan Ryan Highlight. 

**Which will go in the pile of cards to rip on a rainy day after the boys have done their chores.

Outside of the junk wax though was a 400-count box of more-interesting cards. Much more interesting ones.

The oldest card in the batch was a 1961 Topps baseball card of Wes Stock. Not much to say here except to note that I seem to attract extremely-well-loved samples of 1961 Topps. This one fits in perfectly with the rest of my collection.

While the Giants postcards are the highlight of the collection because of how they fit my interests, the most exciting part of this box was finding a stack of over sixty 1966 Philadelphia Gum football cards.

I’m not a football guy. Yes I was a 49ers fan when I was little but I never really learned about the history of the league beyond the Super Bowls. I never even collected the cards. As result I had to Google around to figure out what these were. That a few of the names in the stack jumped out at me made my Googling easier. That a couple of those cards ended up being Hall of Fame rookie cards made things exciting.

Even though it’s not something I collect there’s a giddy thrill in finding things you know carry a bit of potential value. Thumbing through the stack and finding Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus was quite the surprise. I didn’t recognize these as rookie cards but I could tell that they were super young.

I found myself appreciating the action photos in the set. 1960s baseball cards only had action photos for the World Series highlights and those were often black and white up into the 1970s. To see full-color photos from regular season games is pretty cool stuff. It made me wonder why the team photos are black and white.

1966 is historically an interesting set too. That’s the year of the AFL-NFL merger and the season of Super Bowl I. It’s also the first year of the Atlanta Falcons franchise and instead of a team photo and highlight image the set had two Falcons logo cards.

I was surprised to discover that Philadelphia Gum had the rights to the NFL teams and Topps had the rights to the AFL times. It’s weird for me to think of different leagues and different sets. That even after the merge the two different sets continued for a couple years with Philadelphia Gum continuing to print cards for the Colts, Browns, and Steelers—three teams that switched conferences—is especially interesting.

Aside from the two 49ers cards* the only card that’s definitely staying in my collection is the Alex Karras. Not something I’d seek but I can’t let a card of Mongo go.

*I don’t seek or collect them but if they cross my desk I’ll snag them out of respect for my youthful fandom.

There were a dozen 1967 Topps football cards. No cards as cool as the 1966s but a fun design which I’ve seen a few people try and convert into customs. This set is just the AFL teams and it’s nice to see those Raiders and Chargers uniforms.

There were two 1967 Topps Who Am I cards. I have mixed feelings about them being scratched off. Part of me likes the ridiculousness of the unscratched defaced images but the other part prefers being able to see the full portraits.

Non-sport cards aren’t something I seek but I also like being reminded how much larger the trading card world is beyond sports and pop culture. Historic “great man” sets are always particularly interesting since they represent a window into who we celebrate culturally. The artwork presenting Ike as President while placing him in front of D-Day is also a reminder of a different age of the Presidency.

There was a couple dozen 1968 Topps baseball cards. The Don Drysdale is the best one in the batch but there were also a couple A’s cards for my collection. 1968 is the first year the A’s were in Oakland and I’ve been putting together a page or two of those to demonstrate how Topps dealt with the Oakland move.

Sanguillen meanwhile is a fun photo and demonstrates Topps’s image handling for the card backgrounds. He’s clearly in front of a stadium but Topps has effectively turned it into sky by stripping out almost all the Magenta, Yellow, and Black from the background. This is something Topps did a lot in the late-60s and early-70s but usually only in the sky portion of the image.

By 1968 Topps was making football cards for the whole NFL. There were only a dozen of these, no big names, but I love seeing the 1960s team logos. This is such a different design from the 1967 set. I like that it has the some typography as the 1968 baseball set.

There was however a 1968 Topps poster. Nicely folded and in great shape without any tears. It’s a wonderful vibrant photo of the Chargers uniform in all its glory in front of an equally-colorful stadium. You wouldn’t design it like this today but I totally understand why people say that this is what Football should still look like.

Two 1969 Topps football cards. Not much more to say about these except that this is a solid design layout with the white stroke around the logo. I’m not a huge fan of the painted out backgrounds but I do appreciate the pop of color and the simplicity of the type.

Back to non-sport. There were a dozen or so 1969 Donruss Odd Rod stickers. Odd is the operative word here. As someone who was brought into the hobby via Garbage Pail Kids, these definitely feel like an ancestor to that kind of thing, sort of a step from Basil Wolverton to GPK.

Only three 1970 Topps Baseball but I scanned all of them. I love the backgrounds of the 1970 set and this is my first World Series card. I guess the black and white photos are intended to evoke newspaper and TV imagery but I do wish they were in color.

Another highlight from the box was a near-perfect 1970 Kellogg’s Don Sutton. Color is good. There’s like no cracking. I love stuff like this.

A dozen 1977 Topps baseball cards included a wonderfully mis-trimmed Grant Jackson first year Mariners card. I don”t like this design but I’m finding myself enjoying the photo selection. The portraits are frequently interesting and I love how Topps doesn’t care about the horizons being level as long as the player himself is framed well.

1981 Topps is another design I’m not too keen on but which I like a lot of the individual cards and photos. Only a dozen of these and Don Sutton is the only real star. The Rick Dempsey is an example of what the set does best. Multicolor caps which looks like the game caps. A bright contrast-colored border. And an interesting casual candid photograph.

Three Hall of Famers in the dozen 1985 Topps Baseball cards. These cards were the border between “old” and “my” cards and as a result I still don’t know how I feel about them. It’s not a set I collected as a kid. Nor is it a set that felt special to find in repacks. Which is a shame since the set itself is really interesting with a lot subsets that would become a bigger deal as the decade progressed.

Topps Glossy Send-Ins though are something I’ve always liked. These two from 1986 doubled the number of Hall of Famers I have from that year. For the decade when non-glossy cards were the standard glossy stuff like this was special and the checklists were always a who’s-who of the important guys that season.

The only junk wax I’m scanning is the near-complete* set of 1991 Pacific Senior League cards. A decent number of recognizable names but not a lot of star power. In some ways the recognizable players who aren’t big stars are the most fun but yeah it’s nice to see some Hall of Famers continuing to play.

*For whatever reason I’m missing cards 1–18.

This set has a lot of double-player cards with a special emphasis on siblings and father-son combinations. It’s a peak-Pacific design but it’s bright and colorful and we didn’t have a lot of cards like this in other sets at this time.

Not sure if these count as cards but there were a half-dozen Bradex Plate slips. I guess these came with the plates? To be honest I like them better than the plates since the idea of storing and displaying those never made sense to me. But slipping these into a 4-pocket sheet is totally something that appeals to me.

There were also a couple more-modern cards in the mix. This 2000 Pedro Martinez is a jumbo oversize card. Not much else to say about it except that as an oddball of sorts, a Hall of Famer, and as one of the best pitchers of all time I’m happy to slip it into my album.

This 2002 Topps Nestle is another oddball. It’s one of the few Topps-issued card sets that isn’t licensed to use Major League team logos. It’s comforting to see these existed into the 2000s actually since design-aside this is a very 1980s thing to do.

And in addition to all this there’s a half-opened box of 2013 Series 2 to go through. No idea if the autograph or relic has been pulled but it wouldn’t surprise me if it has been and the remaining packs are what’s left after discovering the hit. Those packs though will go with the 1992 box as a stash of stuff to rip with the boys.

Whew. That was a lot of cards. I’m impressed my mom managed to get through them all.

A Fantastic (Sam’s) Mailday From Scott

Way back before New Year’s Scott Berger found a bunch of Fantastic Sams discs at his local Goodwill. Naturally all of us oddball collectors got a bit excited.

1980s oddballs reflect the retail environment where chains were just going national but hadn’t taken over everywhere yet. So you could have a large area of coverage across multiple states but still be effectively a regional thing. So we had malls and chain franchises and things that could show up as monoculture in TVs or movies but for a lot of us those brands only existed on-screen.

For me, stores like the Circle K and chains like Fantastic Sams were in this realm where I was aware of them but not through any first-hand experience. They just didn’t exist in my region and so they were as fictitious as 555 phone numbers.

This kind of “everywhere except not” corporate nature resulted in kind of the perfect distribution for baseball cards. Always things to find out. Always things to talk about. Rewarding to find stuff when you travel or have family elsewhere in the country. Even today guys find things that are surplus in their neck of the woods but which others of us have never even heard of decades later.

These Fantastic Sams discs are like that for me. Not only had I not ever encountered a store, the idea of including baseball cards with your haircut is a tie-in I have never encountered.

The 20-disc checklist seems incredibly optimistic for a single-year release. Unlike with food issues where the temptation to buy another pack of beef jerky or sunflower seeds or to visit McDonalds yet again is a plausible impulse, how often are you going to get your hair cut?

Especially for a tiny unlicensed photo of a player with a single line of stats on the back. Oh well. I think they’re pretty cool now.

Scott was hoping to get a full set with his batch. Instead he found four different cards and a ton of duplicates. So he sent me a batch in a plain white envelope. I’m going to keep the coupons attached (if I can, they’re super brittle) and put these in a four-pocket sheet so having four samples is the perfect amount.

Scott also included a few Topps Archives Giants cards. The 1981 designs are nice-enough. Not my favorite design but there’s something comfortable about it.

The 1959-designed Clark meanwhile is this close to being a great card but I can’t get over the off-centered name. A shame. 1959 Topps is kind of a wonderful design to update and repurpose. Something about it just screams “trading card” and featuring Clark’s signature makes the whole thing pop so well.

The final card in the envelope is a Stanford Football card. I’m not actively collecting non-baseball Alumni but I’ve been putting the ones I do come across into my Stanford Albums* and this one fits in just right there.

*Yes I’ve been coming across others too.

Thanks Scott! I need to go through my duplicates and really see who deserves to be on your ASU pile.

Now With 49ers

A semi-surprise mailday from Andrew (@earthtopus). He’s a Tampa Bay fan/collector who focuses on the Bucco Bruce Creamsicle era. It’s no surprise that his plain white envelope was a bit of silliness and a bit of trolling.

I’m not a football card collector nor am I really a football fan anymore. But these are all from the era when I did care, sometimes a lot, about the 49ers and it’s fun to be reminded of that part of my youth.

Steve Young

1987 Topps Steve Young. I totally missed “the ”Now With 49ers” when I opened the envelope and thought this was just meant to be an amusing look at Young as a Buccaneer. Seeing that minuscule “traded” stamp makes it even funnier as this is technically now the first card of Young as a 49er. I don’t remember much about him in those first seasons with the Niners beyond never feeling comfortable when he had to sub in for Joe Montana.

Football Brothers: Chris and Matt Bahr

But the Young card makes a nice pair, of sorts, with this 1982 Topps card. Andrew just had to remind me of Matt Bahr 15–49ers 13. While that wasn’t how I remembered the game (Roger Craig’s fumble hurt me more), I never really put together that that was also Montana’s last real 49ers game too. Which means it also marks the beginning of the Steve Young era.

Tampa Bay Play Action Tampa Bay Play Action 1978 Topps

LOL this is hilariously dire. I appreciate that Fleer included Tampa in its 1978 set of football action but the dig on the back about “finally broke into the victory column” makes it seem like it took them three seasons to finally win a game instead of the 0–26 record they had before winning their first.

Doug Wiliams

The 1981 Topps Sticker of Doug Williams wasn’t meant to be silly. As with seeing Steve Young as a Buc, it’s also weird to see Williams as one since we’re all used to him with Washington.

1992 Pro Set Spirit of the Game 1992 Pro Set Spirit of the Game

What the hell is going on in 1992 ProSet? Is that a fake bottle of rum and a plastic child’s katana standing in for a dagger? And putting a glossy spin on there being two Steve DeBerg eras? Sheezus. I may not like Malcolm Glazer but I’m happy for any Tampa fans who stuck with the team through thin and thin until that Super Bowl.

Mark Carrier 1991 Pro Set Mark Carrier

This spanish-language 1991 ProSet card on the other hand has me jealous that there weren’t any real spanish-language cards for baseball at this time. Googling around lead me into discovering Pacific though so now I have a potential new collecting lead to run down for baseball cards. And I get to indirectly thank Andrew for that rabbit hole.

Weaning from football

For a while now, I’ve been trying to wean myself from football. This is due to a combination of multiple things.

I hate the way it’s corrupting colleges. The number of teams with lousy graduation rates is embarrassing. The way players are used, essentially for free, is appalling. I’m glad that my school is doing things the right way. But it’s one of very few and I think things are going to get worse before they get any better.

The ongoing concussion/brain injury situations are scary and depressing. Why would anyone let their kid play this sport? How can I watch, let alone root for, an activity which is literally killing its participants. This is not something I want my sons to do. Nor is the behavior anything I want them to model.

The complete lack of interest in any drug testing is astonishing. No one’s asking these questions now. We’ve been aware of the issue for over 40 years. Other sports have, to various degrees, been addressing the issue. Soccer is getting flak in Europe for being too lenient. Baseball is also a bit of a joke. But both of those sports seem to have their houses in much better order than football.

The way football teams are demanding public financing for stadiums or TV deals which then stiff the public is disgusting. Best-case scenario is a dozen games a year at a football stadium. That’s a lot of money to spend for 12 days. It’s not even 25% of the weekends. Yes you can do other things at the stadium. But that involves having to go out and bid on those events. That the public is expected to recoup its costs due to increased business to the area just doesn’t add up. Especially when the teams are raking in the luxury box deals and advertising revenue.

The amount of money and attention lavished on the Super Bowl is obscene. What are we up to, $4 million per advertisement? Craziness. The entire country has a holiday which consists of watching TV for 4 hours and talking about the commercials we’ve seen. What is wrong with us?

I don’t even really like the games anymore. I can appreciate the tactics—in fact, this is really all I still like—but I’m finding that neither the violence or the athleticism is appealing. Besides, most of time during a football game does not involve playing football.

Weaning though is hard work. Football is so engrained into the fabric of America that it’s difficult to not be aware of the NCAA or NFL seasons and top teams. Super Bowl Sunday is, at this point, as legitimate an American Feast Day as Thanksgiving. It’s especially hard if the local teams, my teams, are doing well. In this case, it’s the curse of being a local.

Stanford won the Rose Bowl. And the 49ers went to the Super Bowl. I found it hard not to root for them.  However, I can report progress.

When Stanford won, I was happy, but not the way I used to be. I felt no compulsion to blog about it. I was not worried about the game (one way or another). I did not feel like I had to purchase anything to celebrate. I didn’t even brag about it to anyone.

When the 49ers lost last weekend, I realized that I’ve made even more progress. I was not nervous during the 4th quarter when things got tight. I felt no anger in the loss nor any sadness. I did not even have any of the stomach-punch feeling I’m used to getting as a long-suffering Giants or Barça fan.*

*Not recently for either of those teams but I’m talking about my long-term experiences.

It’s liberating to not care.

I’ll try to stick on this path. I may always have a residual rooting interest but if I don’t feel it in my gut, it’s not a real one. We’ll see what happens when my sons get older though, I fear they may pull me back in.

Nostalgia Again

I’m done with the Olympics. Not tired. Done. It’s not just that I’ve stopped really caring, it’s that I’m now questioning the entire reality of sports as a result of the Olympics. I’m hoping that this is just a function of how my views on sports have changed as I’ve aged.*

*And that watching sports with my sons will rekindle some of my former feelings. I’ve covered this before but I’ve been pushed even further down this path now.

I fear however that it’s sports which have changed to the point where I barely recognize them anymore.* And that the world has changed to the point where the old approach is no longer sustainable.

*In some ways, best summarized by the baseball card market and how it imploded on itself by forgetting the point of the product.

We know too much now and something as innocent* as sports is anachronistic when it doesn’t evolve.** Yet it’s no longer recognizable when it does.

*Ideally.

**E.G. The Masters. The fact that it hasn’t evolved is what makes it both great and horrible. It’s a remnant of the past and a reminder of how sports used to be covered.

This isn’t just the evolution of sports into becoming more and more like business. It’s the erosion of our sense of idealism.

In the past, it was possible to watch the Olympics each night with family, talk about it the next morning with friends, and experience the events as an introduction to semi-obscure sports and to the rest of the world. The competitors were amateurs and the competition was intended to be a celebration.

Tape delay didn’t matter. Nor did the relentless focus on American athletes. And the event was unquestionably the most important event of the sport.

Now? It’s a stunt more than anything else. These athletes see and compete against each other all the time.* Any surprises are because of people peaking at the  right time rather than a lack of knowledge about a country. The events are never show live so there is no sense of community with the rest of the world.** Results are known in advance.*** And, in many cases, the competition truly isn’t the most important event for the sport anymore.

*One of the nice things about the World Cup is that it represents a reorganization of the existing professional teams in a way which is still taken seriously. This reorganization of teams isn’t possible with individual sports.

**Watching Twitter, or even Facebook, while a live event occurs is a fantastic way of being plugged into the pulse of the event.

***It’s been this way for a dozen years now. Impossible to stay away from “spoilers” and, really, why would you?

If it’s not broadcast live, it’s no longer a sport.

The Olympics is now a sports-like product which encourages all the things which are ruining sports.

It’s not just fanaticism, it’s nationalism. This tales the irrationality to an extreme. Not only does a rational point of view become potentially “not a real fan,” it’s now unpatriotic to criticize your team. Oh, and you can’t choose your team at all now.

The packaging of individual stars as products. While this is annoying in sports which I care about, it’s even worse with sports which no one cares about. Especially when a medal favorite “fails” despite the hype. Winning is hard and should never be taken for granted yet the Olympics coverage is all about expecting wins.

Advertising and commercial sponsorship. Good lord. At least the Super Bowl ads are funny. These ones are all trading off of stars or patriotism. And they all reflect corporate buy-in in a way which tends to exclude any local businesses from being involved in the games. Every Olympics is the same old sponsors. Why are there never any local companies involved?

The extortion of public money for private benefit. This one galls me the most. Private owners of sports clubs expect the general public to fund stadiums and other infrastructure. For baseball (80 games a year) this makes some sense. For football (8 weekends a year) it does not. For the Olympics (2 weeks. Period.) it really does not. Especially since all the commercial sponsorship money does not make it back to the funders of the infrastructure.*

*The Bay Area 2012 Olympics proposal involved already-existing stadiums and just upgrading the infrastructure. It never made the cut because it was “too cheap.”

The amateur-professional issue. The Olympics, correctly, does not treat athletes as amateurs anymore. This, however, screws anyone still in college since the NCAA still clings to an unworkable definition of amateur. And it points out both the problems and issues we have with rationalizing the professional world with our ideals of what sporting competition should be.

As someone who roots for comeuppance, the only lingering hope I have for the Olympics is that they’ll blown themselves up in their own hype. While I’ll only get to see it on tape delay, the good news is that I’ll know to tune in ahead of time.

Sports School

https://twitter.com/#!/vossbrink/status/154077947534376960

Despite pretty much owning the NACDA Directors’ Cup, that excellence is rooted in the breadth of athletics offered at Stanford. It’s not about being a big-name-sports school. I’ve written about gloryhunting and bandwagoning as they relate to the professional teams I follow. I tolerate stuff like that in professional sports because I know it’s a business and understand that winning is goal number one.

Not so in college. Yet.

With college sports at Stanford, athletes are expected to be students first.* Athletic excellence, especially in the big-name sports, is nice but cannot be relied upon. Alumni appreciate the great teams because of how infrequently they occur. The fundamental weakness to Stanford athletics is that all the stars have to align correctly for greatness to occur.

*And good people second.

Non-alumni and students lucky enough to be undergraduates during a period of greatness often miss this truth. This gets them into trouble.

Expect good coaching and smart players only.

Do not expect athletic excellence. Do not talk trash. Ever.

Fate can always trip you up. Do not assume victory. Ever.

Next year is a completely different class of students who had to be admitted to Stanford on their own merit. This is not large pool of kids. It will be different than this year’s group. It has to be.

If you can’t handle the unknowns and enjoy the few transcendent teams for what they are, don’t even get on the bandwagon.

Sports Purist

As I watched this year’s SuperBowl, I found myself wishing that I could just lose myself in the raw emotional responses to sports. I was rooting for Green Bay. Sort of. But since I have no real emotional attachment to Green Bay, I couldn’t get too wrapped up in the emotions of the game.

My brothers in law did not have this problem. Nor, I suspect, did most people. They were jumping off the couch whenever Green Bay did something good and yelling at the TV whenever they did something bad. It certainly seemed like a lot of fun. Meanwhile I found myself critiquing the playcalling and enjoying the tactical battles despite the result. Yes it’s still fun. But it’s not the same.

I noticed the same thing while watching March Madness this year. I could enjoy an exciting upset but it really bothered me to watch teams play badly. I’ve found that my interest in the tournament has waned as a result. I’d rather watch the later games when (hopefully) the better teams have survived and I can see a game between two well-coached, tactically-sound, and athletically-gifted teams rather teams relying on a hot hand, enthusiasm, and luck.

I’m not sure when my conversion to sports purist occurred.

But I now enjoy the competition and tactics of the game almost more than the result.* While I touched on this previously here, it’s really been something that I’ve been noticing in myself for a while. And as a result, I’ve been thinking a bit about what, exactly, I find enjoyable about sport.

*This isn’t to say that I don’t get excited when one of my teams wins. But even then, I find myself wrapped up in the quality of play rather than concentrating on the scoreboard.

I attribute much of my mindset to the two sports I grew up enjoying. As vastly different as they are, baseball and soccer are both sports which require a lot of situational improvisation and awareness of the bigger picture. The focus of the sport is not set pieces and understanding the game is about learning the flows and rhythms of how things develop. These aren’t games where coaches call plays for players to implement. These are games where the players have to be smart enough to know what to do and when to do it.

It’s probably no coincidence that the best examples of both of these sports are often very low-scoring affairs—mistakes lead to higher scores.

Baseball, in particular, due to its sheer quantity of games and the fact that the best teams only win 60% of the time forced me down the path of appreciating the quality of play rather than the result. You can’t be overly invested in the result of a ballgame when you attend. So instead you hope to see a good game and learn how to appreciate those games when you get them.

While soccer games involve higher stakes, a mythology has built up around those teams which played well and lost (e.g. Brazil 1982) rather than the teams which ended up winning despite playing ugly. I wasn’t conscious of my preferences when I settled on a soccer team to support. But my subconscious appears to have been fully on top of things. Xavi says it best.

Other teams win and they’re happy, but it’s not the same. The identity is lacking. The result is an impostor in football. You can do things really, really well – last year we were better than Inter Milan – but did not win. There’s something greater than the result, more lasting. A legacy.

And so by following soccer and baseball, I’m now applying the same principles to all the other sports I watch.

More playoffs

Inspired by Posnanski.

Give me a real pennant race.

I’d love for baseball to be four 8-team leagues playing a 154-game round-robin schedule with no interleague play. Then you have a tournament between the 4 winners. I’ve even got the leagues figured out:

  • original 8 National League teams
  • original 8 American League teams
  • 8 National League expansion teams
  • 8 American League expansion teams

I wouldn’t mind if football were the same way. Four 8-team leagues playing 14 games round-robin, all followed by a 4-team tournament.

It used to mean something when you had the best record in the league. Heck, the best sports call of all time is “The Giants win the pennant!!!!!!” Now having the best record means you either peaked too soon or choked “when it counts.”

Hogwash.

If my team dominates the league and then gets upset in the playoffs, I’d love to remember the team for the entire season of greatness rather than the bitters end.