There’s Still a Sporting Chance for Fun

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A weekly wrap-up of some of the biggest headlines in sports.

Root, Root, Root for the Home Team!

Ah, such sweet symmetry! My first column for the site, on the second of the month…so close to being on the first month of the year…Oh well, guess we’re still stuck talking about what is the 2017 sports malaise.

*Now, it’s not all bad- we’ll get to that; however if Thanksgiving demonstrated anything (aside from Mom’s culinary skills) it’s that sports is in the midst of a serious PR problem.

Typically, the topic du jour on Turkey Day is football- the prominent teams, games, and storylines. Even those in the house that aren’t football fans get involved in the conversation, as it’s a casual source of mutual interest. The games are on in the background, Brady, Manning, and maybe the Cowboys are mentioned…you know the deal. Even Aunt Ellen has been reading the sports pages so she can keep up, and comment on Russell Wilson’s incredible pocket presence.

This year? The only football conversation centered on the sordid state of affairs in the league; the declining ratings, whether it was injuries or kneeling during the National Anthem that was responsible for empty stadiums and lack of interest, the infighting between certain owners and Commissioner Goodell, and somehow LaVar Ball, since he seems to be involved in everything lately. (Actually, at this point the conversation became politicized with words like “Trump,” “Twitter rants,” and “patriotism” entering the field. And yes, I do mean “field,”- what had been friendly discourse quickly became a full-contact sport).

Meanwhile, notably absent: any of the actual football games on TV. Even in the background. And we’re a house full of Giants fans! (Played the Redskins Thanksgiving night; although that could have a little something to do with Big Blue doing their best impression of their MetLife mates this year…).

So, why weren’t we watching? Why aren’t there NFL souvenirs and jerseys anywhere near the cousins’ Christmas lists this year? It’s not the kneeling and protesting itself, the rise of injuries, or even the ‘evil’ characters like Ezekiel Elliot driving fans away (see: Ray Lewis and the inherent brutality of the game previously lauded over the years). No, it’s that the league and those covering it have lost sight of what it’s core product is supposed to be, leaving us fans with all this ambient noise fixated on everything except the actual game on the field.

Maybe he’s just jealous of the hair…

The NFL’s – and sports in general – success has always been built on focusing on and promoting compelling characters and storylines that people can get behind. It’s the narrative – people and their stories – that are at the crux of entertainment, with sports taking it a step further and offering a rare source of unscripted excitement. Except that’s all gone this year. Hell, even the live excitement factor has been drastically muted by the constant, inexcusable uncertainty over a catch/touchdown’s authenticity.

That’s where America’s “long-dead” National Pasttime – the MLB – may have it right; demonstrating a potential solution to those running the National Football League. This year’s baseball season, capped by a tremendous playoffs and World Series, was one of the most popular, well-received seasons in years. Yes, the MLB did have it’s issues (length of games, constant pitching changes, paces of play…) yet none that proved nearly as fatal or problematic as those plaguing the NFL.

It’s here that MLB league execs deserve credit. What baseball did is acknowledge it’s flaws, engage in constructive conversation, and offer to work on finding mutually acceptable solutions to fans and the league. The sport did not try to hide behind any fallacy of perfection a la “The Shield,” long eponymous with the sanctity of the National Football League.

Baseball’s self-aware, productive reaction prevented any echo-chamber of negative noise from enveloping the sport, allowing the fun and engaging players, teams, and storylines to be the focus. The MLB actively worked to find, uncover, and promote compelling reasons to watch, root, cheer for, and enjoy the players and games on the field.

Emphasis was placed on the fun, uplifting stories throughout the league, like Jose Altuve’s unlikely rise to success despite his diminutive stature; Aaron Judge and other young rookies taking the sport by storm absent any overwhelming sense of entitlement or pretension; managers Joe Maddon and Terry Francona playing mad-scientist on the field; teams like the Minnesota Twins and Arizona Diamondbacks going on remarkable turnarounds; the Houston Astros rags-to-riches story from a dumpster fire of a franchise to World Series Champion in 2017…

Even moments of major controversy (Starling Marte caught using steroids, Yuli Gurriel’s racial gesture…) were sidestepped by Commissioner Rob Manfred and the league dealing with them abruptly and definitively. Yes, there was debate, conversation, and thoughtful/contested deliberation, however once action was taken, it was done with. These off-field issues were not allowed to distract from the actual sport, which is in stark contrast to how the NFL let the Ezekiel Elliot suspension develop into a messy, distracting soap-opera of a situation pitting Jerry Jones against Roger Goodell against Ezekiel Elliot against common decency and good sense. Baseball acted, acted quickly, and moved on, preserving the space necessary for the product on the field to shine (players, teams, stories).

Therein lies proof that 2017 in sports was not all bad (back to the point at the top). Actually, the likely news today- Japanese baseball player Shohei Ohtani being posted and entering the MLB – is the perfect embodiment of the discrepancy between the awful and uplifting in the sports world. Ohtani, the star player, deciding to come to the MLB despite sacrificing the enormous payday available if he simply waited two years simply for love of the game and a desire to compete on the highest level. The unadulterated enjoyment and celebration of everything that’s right with sports. (Sidenote: Ohtani will still earn a boatload of money, so no need for tears…).

*Speaking of which, to the powers that be: I’d like to pitch a terrific opportunity for some fun reality TV. “Shohei Ohtani: Baseball’s version of The Bachelor.” He and his agent have basically requested teams court him with their most enticing proposals, submitting a questionnaire for all interested ball clubs to fill out elucidating why Ohtani should want to play there.

This column will appear weekly on Friday’s throughout the year.

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