Kate Smith and “God Bless America”

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s the story with Kate Smith and “God Bless America? Why are people all up in arms about this?

Thanks,
Alex

Dear Alex,

You’re absolutely right to ask and I’d be happy to explain as best I can. In fact, I’ve wanted to write about this since I first saw her name in the news, because this story is a perfect intersection of sports, politics, and history, all of which are of great interest to me. I’m going to tackle this as a series of short questions and answers. Some of the questions may seem like exaggerations of how people might react to this news, but I guarantee you, they are not. They are based on a survey of opinion articles on the story. Here are just a few of the headlines:

Who is Kate Smith?

Kate Smith was a hit singer in the 1930s and 40s who had popular radio and later television shows. At her peak, she was one of the most famous people in the country. She remained a celebrity through the 1970s. She was strongly associated with patriotism – having popularized the Irving Berlin song, “God Bless America” and helped to sell war bonds during World War II.

What is her sports connection?

Smith became connected to the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team in the late 1960s – early 1970s. According to NBC Sports, a member of the Philadelphia Flyer’s organization was reacting to fans being unhappy with the playing of the national anthem before games during the 1969 season in the context of the Vietnam War and the reinstatement of the draft. He “stumbled across” a recording of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” from the 1930s and decided to try it instead of the anthem. It became a tradition in Philadelphia, in part because the team seemed to play better in games when it was substituted for the National Anthem — they won 19 of their first 21 games when Kate Smith’s recording was played.

The team invited Smith to sing the song in person, which she did on several occasions, the most memorable of which was during a Stanley Cup gam against the Boston Bruins in 1974, which the Flyers won. Here’s one of her live performances:

The tradition continued after her death in 1986.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, many Major League Baseball teams began using Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” during their seventh inning stretches. (The seventh inning stretch is a slightly longer break between the first half of the inning and the second half which usually has a musical accompaniment.) The New York Yankees kept this new tradition up longer than other teams.

Why is she in the news now?

Both teams have recently stopped using Smith’s recording after an “email from a fan alerted them” that Smith had also recorded at least two racist songs. The Flyers have also covered up a statue of Smith that stood outside their stadium.

The teams’ decisions have sparked a slew of reactions among fans and in media, the majority of which (or at least the most vocal of which) defend Smith and ridicule the teams for their decisions.

What were the songs she recorded and were they really racist?

The two songs cited were “Pickaninny Heaven” and “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and yes, they are really racist. The word “pickaninny” itself is a racial slur and the song, “Pickaninny Heaven” traffics in stereotypes about black culture. “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” is the far more insidious of the two songs. It espouses the idea that black people were born for the express purpose of serving white people, not only as manual laborers and entertainers but also as moral examples and encourages black people to accept their lot in life.

But this was the 1930s. Everyone was racist! Also, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” was satire and the black singer, Paul Robeson performed it.

Not everyone was racist in the 1930s. Some people definitely were though and there was conflict, just like all other times in American history. In the specific context of the 1930s though, you had black people being disproportionately affected by the Great Depression, a rise in lynchings, a continuation of Jim Crow, and the rise of fascism with its fake-genetics racism. Songs, like the two in question, that perpetuate the myth of racial difference and inferiority were not simply a reflection of the times but also purposely racist in the context of the time.

The idea that “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” was intended as satire at the time has been circulating in the current news cycle. I can’t find the source of this, nor can I find anything to support it. Paul Robeson, a black singer and social and political activist (and Rutgers football star), whose civil rights credentials are unquestionable, did perform the song but that doesn’t prove anything. His rendition sounds to me as though it is filled with deep pathos, not satire; that by applying his magnificent voice and presence to the song, he’s challenging audiences, “are you sure you believe that black people are inferior?” or at least making the point, “it’s really sad that so many people think black people are inferior.” Even if the song were truly satirical and Robeson’s performance was satirical, the same would not be true of a white woman performing the song. Not all comedy works if you sub out the comedian.

Okay fine, but isn’t this an overreaction?

An overreaction? It’s definitely a quick reaction. The teams involved have changed their behavior soon after learning about the questionable behavior. I can think of three possible reasons for the quick reaction.

  1. Sports teams are now run by people committed to social justice and always doing the right thing regardless of the bottom line.
  2. Sports teams are scared of being shamed by their fans.
  3. The two teams in question were getting sick of their connection to Kate Smith and were looking for a reason to ditch her rendition of God Bless America.

Which do you think is most likely? I think we can toss out #1 immediately. The people who run sports teams are still interested in winning and making money; not necessarily in that order. #3 is possible. Playing a recording of God Bless America from over 80 years ago firmly ties your team to a nostalgic appreciation of the past. In the era of social media, teams might feel like ditching that for a more contemporary vibe but not be sure how to do it on their own.

#2 is definitely my choice though. The era of #metoo was directly proceeded by the era of tearing down confederate monuments and of revisiting public tributes to past figures in general. The engine powering all of this is a powerful anger that should scare any organization as reliant on good will and consumer interaction as a sports team.

So, it’s a quick reaction, but is it an overreaction? It’s hard to judge that if you’re not a person who is offended by something. How do you judge how badly someone is offended? Luckily for us, we can mostly look at the other side of the equation: how important is it to play Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” at sporting events? The answer to that is pretty easy – it’s not that important!

But this is historical revisionism! You can’t just rewrite the past.

Yah, historical revisionism is bad. It’s way better to find a way of telling a story of the past that is inclusive of the incorrect ways people have told that same story. The best example I know of an organization doing this is the Natural History Museum in NYC. That said, the Flyers and the Yankees are not history museums. They don’t have an obligation to correct the historical record. They do have an obligation not to offend current fans.

Well, I’m a current fan and I feel offended by the destruction of a beloved tradition.

Good. If the only things we lose because of our culture’s greater understanding of more diverse historical and lived experiences are painless to lose, then we are not evaluating things deeply enough.

I just wish people would keep politics out of sports. Sports is a refuge from politics.

Nonsense – use of Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” at sporting events has always been political. The Flyers first subbed it in for the National Anthem because of the context of the Vietnam War and political divisions within their fanbase. The Yankees started using it after the attacks of September 11, 2001; a political response to a political act. Politics are inextricably combined with all of our activities and that certainly includes our sports!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What’s the plot of Super Bowl LIII? Part 3 – What positions matter?

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s the plot of this year’s Super Bowl? I’m going to my friends’ Super Bowl party and I think it will be more fun watching the game if I know what to watch for.

Thanks,
Lucie


Dear Lucie,

Thanks again for your question. This is part two of a three part answer to it. At Dear Sports Fan, we believe that following sports like soap opera is the most enjoyable way to be a sports fan. If you missed part one and part two, I’d love for you to read them, but you don’t need to to understand this one!

What positions matter?

Recently I starting playing a role-playing computer game from 1990 that I loved as a kid called Angband. Like many games of its type, when you begin creating a new character, you need to decide where to distribute points across a number of qualities, in this case: strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, and constitution. It’s a zero sum game. Each point you give to strength is one you can’t give to dexterity or wisdom.

Building a football team is a lot like creating a character in a role playing game. Thanks to the NFL’s salary cap rules, each team has a limited amount of money they can spend on player salaries. Each dollar you devote to one position, is a dollar you cannot spend on another. You have to choose what positions you think are most important to invest in.

In every era of the NFL, there are certain consensus about what positions are most important to invest in. The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis is, essentially, the story of a shift in this consensus, from thinking that every position on the offensive line was similar and not worthy of investment, to the belief that the left tackle was the most important and worthy of incredible investment.

The NFL today is in the middle of another shift in positional valuations and this Super Bowl is set up perfectly to provide a referendum on the current trends because when it comes to which positions the Patriots invest in, they mostly conform with the current trends while the Rams buck the trends in several important ways. If this narrative (which I think I made up this morning) is true, then it’s important not only to General Managers throughout the league but also to players whose ability to get hired and paid might hinge on the outcome of the game.

The current trends in the NFL suggest a few things:

Offense rules supreme over defense

In the ongoing football conflict between offense and defense, offense has been winning for a while, but this year felt like the year the entire concept of defense broke/transformed.

For the basically the whole history of the NFL, defenses have been trying to shut down offenses entirely and the most elite, best defenses in the league had a good shot at demoralizing an offense. Thanks to a series of rule changes that favor offense and an explosion of creative offensive ideas, in 2018, defenses don’t really have a fair shot at being an overpowering force.  In 2018, the best defenses in the league still gave up an average of over 17 points — two touchdowns and a field goal. Like all reasonably entities when faced with a losing cause, teams have shifted their expectations for their defense. Instead of winning through defense teams hope their defenses just don’t totally lose the game for them.

So, you’d expect that winning teams would spend a larger proportion of their money on offensive players. The Patriots are reasonably on trend when it comes to this: their overall split is 46% on offense and 40% on defense (the other 4% is on special teams). The Rams, on the other hand, go against trend and spend 50% on defense and only 34% on offense.

This slant is most clearly seen on the Rams defensive line where they have committed a whopping $42 million, by far the most of any positional group. By comparison, the Patriots have committed only $17 million to their defensive line.

The Rams love defensive linemen. They signed their best defense lineman, Aaron Donald before the year to the “richest deal in NFL history” but because that doesn’t go into affect until next season, he’s not even the highest paid defensive lineman on the team. (That would be famous friend of Warren Buffet, Ndamukong Suh.) They even doubled down (I hate that phrase, but it’s fitting here) on their commitment during the year by trading for Dante Fowler, another highly paid/regarded defensive lineman.

This might seem like a smart strategy, given the old truism about beating Tom Brady in the Super Bowl: that you need to pressure him without blitzing — only possible with an excellent defensive line. But note that it’s an old truism that relies on the Super Bowls from 2008 and 2012 as evidence. When the Patriots lost in the Super Bowl last year, it had nothing to do with the opposing team’s defense — they were terrible but the Patriots own defense was even worse.

Running backs are essentially interchangeable and not worth paying for.
Teams in today’s NFL are consistently featuring young running backs who are on their rookie contracts (The initial contract a player gets as a rookie covers four or five years and is pegged to his draft position. Unless a player is a bust and way worse than projected, rookie contracts are almost always less than what the player would make on their next contract.) There’s an open debate about whether even the very best running back is worth investing a lot of money into. Perhaps the best running back in the league, Le’Veon Bell, sat out the entire year this year because his team would not commit to paying him what he thought they should.

The Patriots conform reasonably well to this trend despite utilizing running backs more than almost any other team in the league. They have three running backs: James White, Sony Michele, and Rex Burkhead and they use all of them throughout the game. These three combined make about as much money as the Rams starting running back, Todd Gurley, who, before the year began, signed the highest ever contract for a running back. By signing Gurley to a four year, $60 million dollar contract, the Rams firmly took a contrarian stand against the trend of devaluing the running back position.

Gurley is undeniably a phenomenal running back and a star in the league. He led the NFL in all sorts of running stats this season and, perhaps more importantly, was seen as the driving force behind the Rams offense. The Rams are most effective throwing the ball when they use what is called a play action pass or a fake run. So you could argue that Gurley’s strength as a runner, even if it’s not important in itself, is vital because it forces defenses to respect the fake-run passing plays. So maybe the Rams’ bucking of the trend against paying running backs will prove to be worth it.

What makes a football team great? Who should you pay the most? Where should a team splurge and where should it skimp? The result of this year’s super bowl will validate current trends in answering these questions and possibly even start some new ones.

What’s the plot of Super Bowl LIII? Part 2 – Passing the torch

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s the plot of this year’s Super Bowl? I’m going to my friends’ Super Bowl party and I think it will be more fun watching the game if I know what to watch for.

Thanks,
Lucie


Dear Lucie,

Thanks again for your question. This is part two of a three part answer to it. At Dear Sports Fan, we believe that following sports like soap opera is the most enjoyable way of interacting with sports, so narratives are important! In Part One, we examined the “nobody believes in us” narrative that the Patriots are trying to impose on the Super Bowl and which has inspired quite a backlash. In this post, we’ll evaluate another common Super Bowl LIII narrative — that this is a symbolic passing of the torch from the New England Patriots to the Los Angeles Rams.

Passing the torch

In this narrative, Super Bowl LIII will be the moment that the current/last great dynasty in football (the Patriots) passes the torch to the next great dynasty in football (the Rams). This interpretations is based largely on the age and perceived quality of the two head coaches in the game.

The Patriots coach, Bill Belichick is a consensus figure on the NFL’s coaching Mount Rushmore, as respected as he is reviled. Success in sports almost always inspires hate because it is literally zero sum. If the Patriots win, 31 other teams do not win. On top of that, Belichick responds to media questions in a manner that is brusque to the point of being rude. Still, the most common adjective applied to Belichick is “genius” and it’s somewhat fitting. More than any other person, Belichick has imprinted his own personality and ideas about how things should be done on the Patriots organization. Here is just a sampling of these ideas, many of which you will hear announcers talking about:

  • Evaluate players for what they can do, not what they can’t do.
  • Each game is brand new and should be approached differently than the last.
  • Always find a way to take away the thing the opposing team’s offense does best.
  • If you find something that works against an opposing team’s defense, do it over and over again until they adjust. Then attack the new weakness they created by adjusting.

If you think these seem obvious, you’re right! I think that’s why the term genius kind of applies to Belichick – in my experience, genius discoveries or inventions always seem obvious in retrospect – gravity, the printing press, sewers – but a mark of Belichick’s greatness is that even though his ideas are known, they are difficult enough to execute that he still gets an advantage by doing them.

Sean McVay, the Los Angeles Rams coach has his own adjectives that get applied to him. He gets “genius” as well but more often “prodigy” or “savant”. This is partially because of his age. He became a head coach at 30 and had nearly instant success. He is 33 now. It’s also because somewhere along the line, someone discovered that with a tiny amount of prompting, he could recall seemingly every play in any game he’d ever been a part of.

The memory is just window dressing, of course, that confirms and emphasizes the impression people already have of McVay. One of the most obvious of his successes has been his impact on Los Angeles Rams quarterback, Jared Goff. Goff was drafted first overall in 2016, the year before McVay became head coach. His rookie season was spectacularly bad — so bad that when the team fired their coach and interviewed for a new one, the assumption was that anyone who claimed to be able to improve his play was lying for the sake of getting the job. Under McVay, Goff has become one of the best young quarterbacks in the league.

McVay is so well respected that he is shaping the way other teams think about hiring. This year, the running joke was that the only way to get a head coaching job in the NFL was to have worked with Sean McVay. When the Arizona Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury, they made sure to include a line in their announcement that announced to friends that he was “friends with Sean McVay.”

The presence of two great coaches in the Super Bowl, one who is 66 and one who is 33 is a notable feature of the game but the narrative that this game is a passing of the torch is almost definitely a false one for a few reasons.

There’s no sign that Belichick is going to retire any time soon, so that side of passing of the torch might be premature. The concept of a passing of the torch also seems to include the idea that the Rams are likely to have a dynasty similar in duration and success to the Patriots. Signs already point to that not being true. Not only is the Patriots success extremely rare but the Rams have some clear financial issues on the horizon that will limit their ability to stay at the top. (This is complicated enough to merit its own post but basically the Rams won’t be able to keep all of their star players for more than another year or so.) Although I am, as an observer, interested in what choices these two “genius” head coaches will make to try to beat each other, I feel positive that neither of them has spent a second in the lead-up to the game thinking about torches.

In favor of this narrative, people will point to a small symmetry. The Patriots dynasty began in the 2001 season when they won their first Super Bowl against (drumroll, please) the St. Louis Rams! How elegant, how cyclical would it be if they finished their dynasty by again beating the Rams? Or conversely, that the Rams began a dynasty by beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl? For me, this just points to how false the entire narrative is. 2001 was a different world from 2019. Almost no one (aside from Belichick and Brady) who was involved with the teams back then is still involved today. One of the teams doesn’t even play in the same city! Sports narratives aren’t that neat.

What’s the plot of Super Bowl LIII? Part 1 – “Nobody believes in us”

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s the plot of this year’s Super Bowl? I’m going to my friends’ Super Bowl party and I think it will be more fun watching the game if I know what to watch for.

Thanks,
Lucie


Dear Lucie,

Super Bowl LIII will be played between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 3, 2019 and will be televised on CBS. Sorry, I know that wasn’t your question, but that’s how all blog posts about the Super Bowl must begin. This year’s game promises to be a good one. As a football (and New England Patriots) fan, I am already getting excited to see it. Like all Super Bowls, however, it has attracted a lot of narratives. It is more fun to watch the game if you understand the plot, so I’ll do my best here to explain some of the most common interpretations of this year’s Super Bowl and evaluate how true they are.

This will be a three-part post. Part two looks at the “passing the torch” narrative. Check back to catch part three soon!

“No One Believes in Us”

After the Patriots won their first game of the playoffs this year, they and their quarterback Tom Brady immediately attracted widespread disbelief and scorn for “playing the nobody believes in us card.” As you probably know, (to paraphrase Napoleon,) an army travels on its stomach but a sports team travels on cliche, and there’s no more seemingly effective cliche in team sports than to claim that “nobody believes in us.” It is a cliche that cements teammates together and fosters a sense of besieged fraternity that can overcome any odds.

On the face of it, relying on the power of cliche seems… unlikely to work, but as Brian Phillips pointed out in his recent homage to tennis player Andy Murray on The Ringer, there is a logic to it:

Spend any time around professional sports and you realize that the armature of cliché by which athletes tend to describe their experience is mostly a survival tactic. The athletes aren’t stupid. They’re simply trying to shore up the resources to compete in an unforgiving environment. If nuance is a tool of doubt and doubt is fatal, you eliminate nuance. You simplify. Say anything often enough and you believe it.

In this case though, no one believes Tom Brady’s “no one believes us” cliche — at least no one outside of the Patriots locker room. In response, ESPN ran an article poking fun at the idea, entitled, “Who believes in the Patriots? Almost everyone actually” and CBS Sports ran a similar article subtitled, “New England is apparently the team no one believes in, forever and ever and ever and ever.” Their point is that Tom Brady and the Patriots are not just not underdogs, they might be the most overdog football team ever!

For evidence, they point to their unprecedented sustained success: since Belichick became coach of the Patriots in 2000 and Brady quarterback in 2001, the Patriots have won the Super Bowl five times, they’ve made it nine times. They are currently on an unholy streak — this is the third straight year they’ve played in the Super Bowl and the fourth out of the last five. Right before the AFC Championship game (a semifinal for the Super Bowl) someone changed the Wikipedia article on the game to read, “The AFC Championship Game is the annual championship game of the American Football Conference (AFC) where one team gets to play the New England Patriots for a chance to play in the Super Bowl” and it wasn’t even statistically that much of an exaggeration. Tom Brady is widely thought of as the GOAT or greatest of all time to play quarterback. Bill Belichick is likewise thought of as the greatest coach of all time. So how can the narrative possibly be that “no one believes” in the Patriots?

It’s not. “No one believes in us” from the Patriots point of view is a false narrative but the backlash against it is also a little bit misleading. While it’s clearly not true to claim that no one believed the Patriots making or winning the Super Bowl was possible, it is true that most observations of the Patriots  at this point include a generous pinch of disbelief. Their sustained success is unlikely:

  • No one else has ever done it, certainly not in an era of the NFL when league rules seem to be slanted toward “parity” or creating a league where teams rise and fall quickly.
  • People do think that Tom Brady is a great quarterback but they know that he’s 41 and that Father Time is undefeated.

Patriots are not underdogs but they have been overdogs for so long that the longer it continues, the more unbelievable its duration becomes.

What is tipping pitches in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’ve been watching the baseball playoffs this year (for a change) and enjoying them. I heard the announcers talking about a pitcher having trouble because he was “tipping his pitches.” What is tipping pitches in baseball?

Thanks,
Wynell

— — —

Dear Wynell,

When a pitcher tips his pitches, he is doing something, however small, during his preparation to throw a pitch that gives a clue to the batter about what type of pitch he is going to throw. 

Although just hitting a baseball thrown at 100 miles per hour may seem virtually impossible to laypeople like you and me, it’s not the primary challenge for major league baseball players. Every professional player can handle the speed, it’s the difference in speed that gets them. Pitchers are able to vary how hard they throw dramatically from one pitch to the next. Imagine timing your swing for a 100 mph pitch only for the next one to come in at 80% of the speed and moving from left to right or up to down as it flies. The variety of speed and movement of a pitch is what challenges major league hitters.

Imagine, however, that before the pitch even started coming at them, a hitter knew what speed and movement to expect. That would make hitting a lot easier! One common concern in this area is that the hitting team will somehow “steal the signs” that the catcher sends the pitcher about what pitch he should throw. Stealing signs is against the letter of the law in baseball, but is generally understood to be happening most of the time. Watching for a pitcher to tip is pitches is totally allowed and must be happening constantly, but for some reason gets talked about less.

The mechanics of watching for a pitcher to tip a pitch are both simple and complex. The concept is simple: look for any small difference in a pitcher’s movement when he prepares to throw one type of pitch vs. another. (Although many pitchers throw more than two pitches – two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, curveball, slider, cutter, etc. it seems like the biggest advantage is to know whether a pitch is going to be a fastball or an “off-speed” pitch.) The complexity comes from just how small the differences might be. After all, pitchers are a part of this arms race too and routinely scour their routines for any give-away tells or tips.

The best explanation I found of what hitters look for when trying to discern how a pitcher is tipping his pitches came from Carlos Peña. It’s well worth watching!

My favorite part of that video are the hints that Peña give about the psychological battle between hitter and pitcher. I love the idea of a pitcher knowing how the batter thinks he is tipping his pitches and then using that knowledge to manipulate his expectations even further. And I’m quite sure there are times when a hitter is chuckling to himself about how obviously a pitcher thinks he knows how the hitter can tell what pitch he’s about to throw and thinks he’s doing a good job of pretending he’s about to throw something else, but…

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why do base runners in baseball wear an oven mitt?

Dear Sports Fan,

I was watching a playoff baseball game the other day and noticed that once players get on base, they put on (don’t laugh) what looks like an oven mitt on one hand. Why do base runners in baseball wear an oven mitt??!!

Thanks,
Estelle
— — —
Dear Estelle,

I’m not laughing! I’ve noticed that too. What we are looking at when we see a base runner put on what looks like an oven mitt is a new evolution of safety equipment. The oven mitt — called, unsurprisingly, a sliding mitt, is a clever combination of two separate pieces of safety equipment that some baseball players wore to prevent injuries when sliding into a base.

Baseball is, on the whole, a very safe sport. The story from the late 1800s when both sports began in earnest in America is that baseball was played by the working class, who couldn’t afford to injure themselves, while football was played by the upper class whose lifestyle could sustain frequent broken bones. Perhaps the most common danger in baseball is sliding into a base. The speed with which players slide, combined with the great need to touch the base and keep touching it before the fielder gets the ball and steps on the base or tags them, leads to jammed or broken fingers and wrists and even torn wrist cartilage. More rare but still possible is a fielding player coming down on a runner’s hand with their baseball cleats. Ouch!

Baseball players have long had strategies to deal with these risks. Before the sliding mitt, players were taught to hold their batting gloves in their hands or even a fistful of dirt as a reminder to keep their hands in the air for as much of the sliding process as possible. For players who favor protective equipment, a slider’s wrist guard is and has been readily available for years. Like something you would have worn in the late 1990s when you learned how to roller blade, the wrist guard keeps the arm from bending back when it hits the base. The other element that the sliding mitt incorporates is rigid, often fiberglass, protection for the fingers. This evolved from a cast that Kansas City Royals player Scott Podsednik started wearing in 2008. Here’s Podsednik explaining it to the brilliant blog uni-watch:

It’s basically just a hard cast that I had fitted to my hand during the ’08 season. I had an injury to my thumb in ’03, and I started wearing a hard plastic piece to protect my thumb, for sliding head-first. I wore that and had no problems with it until ’08, when I ended up breaking my pinkie finger sliding into second base. Then I got with a hand therapist and she came up with this cast to protect all my fingers, including the thumb. She came up with it, it has worked perfectly, and I haven’t had any problems since.

After making fun of him, other players on his team and around the league began joining Podsednik in protecting themselves. Eventually, the combination rigid glove and wrist guard evolved into a single piece of equipment: the sliding mitt! The version that Whit Merrifield wears has metal rods to protect the fingers and a velcro strap to keep it from sliding off. Rajai Davis, who told MLB reporter Jason Beck that his mitt is “good for baking… baking on the bases.” also insisted that his sliding mitt had minimal padding at the tips of the fingers. Any more and it would give him an advantage by extending his reach toward a base and violate Major League Baseball glove regulations that apparently apply to mitts as well as gloves with fingers.

The sliding mitt has definitely become more common in the major leagues over the last few years. Soon, if the entrepreneurs who bought slidingmitt.com have their way, we’ll see sliding mitts on youth baseball fields across the country.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What is the Carabao Cup?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is the Carabao Cup? And should I care about it?

Thanks,
Milan

— — —

Dear Milan,

The Carabao Cup is the new name for the English Football League (EFL) Cup. It is an in-season league cup open to all 92 of the teams in Great Britain’s top four men’s soccer leagues, the Premiere League, Championship, League One, and League two. It is played mid-week from mid-August to late February. Carabao is a Thai energy drink named after a water buffalo that purchased the naming rights to the tournament. 

It is (mostly) a single elimination tournament with many of the teams receiving byes for one or more rounds. The first round is made up of teams from the bottom three leagues — 70 in 2018-2019. The second round is made up of the winners of those games plus the teams from the top league that aren’t in a European continental competition. The third round is the winners from the second round plus the rest of the top league’s teams. If matches are tied after 90 minutes, the game goes directly to a shoot out without overtime. The one exception to the single elimination is the semifinals which are played as a two game cup tie.

The most intriguing part of the Carabao Cup is the fact that not all the teams in the tournament are particularly interested in winning it. Of the three major trophies available to British soccer teams, the Carabao Cup is the least prestigious and the least valuable. The winner of the Carabao Cup gets only 100,000 pounds. The winner also gets an automatic qualification to play in next year’s Europa League, but that itself is the sort of consolation prize of European soccer. If the winner of the Carabao Cup is one of the top four teams in the Premiere League (the top league) as it usually but not always is, that invitation won’t even be used. In this case, the qualification reverts not to the second place team in the Carabao Cup but to the next team down the list in the Premiere League. Given that the incentives are not so high, many of the best teams use Carabao Cups to get young players experience and to reward other hard-working bench warmers with game time. Fans and ownership would be justifiably annoyed if a star player got injured in a Carabao Cup match.

A tournament in which many of the teams are not trying their hardest may not sound all that intriguing. If that’s your impression, let me suggest a few points of interest:

  • Giant clubs with less than optimal lineups are vulnerable to getting beaten by smaller clubs in lower leagues who are playing their hardest. These upsets are still really fun to root for and watch, even if you know in the back of your mind that they would be less likely to happen if the giant club was trying its hardest.
  • If you root for one of the giant clubs, you might be really excited to see some of the young up-and-coming players in the Carabao Cup today who might star in the Premier League soon.
  • It leads to endless opportunities for second guessing. Lose and the manager should have played just one or two more experienced players. Win a Carabao Cup match but then lose the next league match? The manager should have played fewer starters to save their legs. And, of course, if anyone should get injured, that’s sports radio fodder for weeks.

There’s also something curious, from the perspective of an American sports fan, about a tournament that not everyone tries to win. It simply doesn’t have a parallel in major sports in the United States. As opposed to Herm Edward’s “You play to win the game,” the Carabao Cup seems to say, “everyone has different priorities.”

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What does Wins Above Replacement or WAR mean in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does the stat Wins Above Replacement or WAR mean in baseball?

Thanks,
Rich

— — —

Dear Rich,

Wins Above Replacement is one of the many statistics that have either invaded or enhanced baseball over the past twenty years, depending on your perspective. It’s a single stat made up of many parts that tries to summarize the overall value of a player to the success of their team in a single number. The higher a player’s WAR number, the more they have contributed to their team’s success.

WAR is expressed as the number of wins a player’s team won thanks to their contributions as compared to what the team would have won (speculation warning) if they had been replaced by someone else. Baseball Prospectus, one of the several entities that has their own way of calculating WAR, lists Tim Keefe’s 1883 season as the best ever, during which he contributed 20.2 wins to the New York Metropolitans. If, instead of Mr. Keefe, the Metropolitans had had to scour their farm system for another right handed pitcher, this stat suggests they would have only won 34 games instead of the 54 they actually won.

Here’s the thing about WAR: because it’s intended to be an all encompassing statistic, it’s very complicated. It encompasses a lot of stuff! This is a screenshot from the Wikipedia article on WAR:

Woah! Don’t panic though. In order to understand WAR at a basic level, we need to understand two things — what elements are scored to show whether a player is doing well or poorly and what a replacement player is and how their potential contribution is defined.

What contributes to a player’s Wins Above Replacement?

Although different groups calculate WAR using different formulas, there are some general elements that go into figuring out a player’s contributions to their team. Offensive statistics having to do with hitting and base running are used. Defensively, an everyday player’s fielding is looked at whereas all sorts of pitching statistics are available for pitchers as well as the batting statistics of opposing teams. Overarching all of this is availability – in order to contribute, you’ve got to avoid injury.

What is a replacement player and how is their contribution defined?

Here’s where WAR gets all highfaluting and counterfactual. It’s all very well to measure a player’s contribution to their team’s victories but that’s just the first letter in a three letter statistic! The AR in WAR means “above replacement.” In other words — if Old Hoss Radbourn (the second highest single-season WAR player ever) had broken his ankle before the 1884 season, how would the Providence Grays have done? This question begs another question — who would he be replaced by?

The creators of the WAR statistic believe that there is a generally available and definable level of baseball talent that we can assume would replace any player out there. Given baseball’s well established farm system, (there are 19 minor league baseball leagues with 256 teams in the Major League Baseball ecosystem) that’s probably somewhat true. A replacement-level player is defined for most WAR calculations as one who is 80% as good as the average major league baseball player. One exception to that is the catcher position, which despite (or perhaps because of) being the coolest position in the sport, has fewer players who are decent at it. For that reason, replacement-level catchers are defined as 75% of the league average catcher.


So that’s WAR or Wins Above Replacement in baseball. I find it an interesting statistic because it contains within it the terrifying truth of many professional athlete’s lives that they are eminently replaceable. It’s also sort of funny to think about extending the logic of the statistic to everyday life. “How’s the fried calamari at this place?”
“It’s great — I’d say it’s about seven YAR”
“YAR?”
“Yums Above Replacement…”

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why do NFL players kneel during the National Anthem?

Dear Sports Fan,

Please tell us why NFL players want to kneel during the National Anthem. And explain what, if anything, this has to do with respect or disrespect for the U.S. military.

Thanks,
RKR

— — —

Dear RKR,

The experience of seeing NFL football players kneeling during the National Anthem before a game has become a common one of the past couple of years as has the experience of having their act become a subject of political controversy. As the players’ acts of protest have become more controversial, their intent has become increasingly hidden by claims from outside observers. This makes developing an opinion about whether to support the protests and relatedly, whether the protests are disrespectful toward the American Flag much more tricky. Explanations for the reasoning behind the protest are all over the place. For example, here is the start of the Wikipedia entry on the U.S. National Anthem Protests:

Since August 2016, some U.S. athletes have silently protested against “systematic oppression”,[2] “equality and social injustice”,[3] “racism and injustice in our criminal system”,[4] “oppression of people of color in the United States”,[5] and to not “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color”[6] during the playing of the U.S. national anthem.[7] Many players since 2017 have started to protest against the policies of President Donald Trump.[8]*

*It’s worth noting that the sources for those claims are, in order: [2] Sporting News, [3] USA Today, [4] Fox News, [5] SB Nation, [6] NFL.com, [7] Fox News, [8] Fox News. 

As someone who follows sports news and political news quite actively, I am sure that I carry my own share of bias into this answer, so I’m going to do my best to answer your question without editorializing.

The first NFL player to protest during the National Anthem was Colin Kaepernick. On August 14, 2016, the San Francisco 49ers — the NFL team that employed Kaepernick at the time — played the Houston Texans in a preseason game. Kaepernick sat on a team bench during the playing of the National Anthem. He did the same thing the following week during the 49ers preseason game against the Denver Broncos. He did the same thing once more in the 49ers next preseason game against the Green Bay Packers on August 26, 2016. This time, a few reporters noticed and asked him questions about it after the game.

This got the story going but it didn’t truly explode until three days later, on August 29, when then presidential candidate Donald Trump was asked about it in a KIRO radio interview by Dori Monson and responded by saying, “I have followed it and I think it’s personally not a good thing, I think it’s a terrible thing. And maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try. It won’t happen.” From that moment on, the story of the protests have become increasingly calcified as an “us vs. them” fight with, generally speaking, protesting NFL players and liberals on one side and the NFL commissioner, (most) NFL owners, President Trump, and conservatives on the other. In order to get the clearest possible picture of why, let’s go back to that brief period between August 26 and 29, 2016 after the protest had been noticed but before they had become a controversy.

The day after that August 26 preseason game, the New York Times and NFL.com each ran stories about Kaepernick’s protest. With the benefit of hindsight, they are noticeably balanced in their portrayal. According to Christine Hauser of the New York Times, Kaepernick’s protest was “a statement against racial oppression.” The NFL.com’s article on the same day by Steve Wyche attributed Kaepernick’s protest to, “what he deems are wrongdoings against African Americans and minorities in the United States.” Both stories carried a quote from Kaepernick’s post-game interview: 

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Both the New York Times and NFL.com seem to have done a fair job of summarizing Kaepernick’s intent, although neither of them provide the specific context of police violence against people of color that is so obvviously present in Kaepernick’s last sentence. The following week, in the final preseason game the 49ers played that year, Kaepernick was joined in his protest by teammate Eric Reid. This time, both players knelt during the National Anthem instead of sitting. A year after this, Reid wrote an op-ed in the New York Times explaining his reasoning for joining Kaepernick. Reid wrote, “In early 2016, I began paying attention to reports about the incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police… A few weeks later, during preseason, my teammate Colin Kaepernick chose to sit on the bench during the national anthem to protest police brutality.”

In terms of why they switched from sitting to kneeling, here’s what Reid wrote, “After hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former N.F.L. player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

It seems clear that the protest was generally about the oppression of people of color in the United States and specifically about police brutality. Whether you believe it is disrespectful is a more complicated question. I am reminded of a long rambling car-ride conversation on the subject of disrespect I had with a childhood friend who is now a philosophy professor. We were debating whether an act is disrespectful because of the intent of the person doing it or based on how the person on the receiving end perceives it. If you believe it’s based on the intent of the actor, then you may have enough information now to make up your own mind. If, however, (and this was my side of the argument,) you believe that whether something is disrespectful is based on how the other person perceived it, then… well… the question you’re left with is this: who gets to decide whether the National Anthem or the United States Flag feels disrespected? Who speaks for the country? And isn’t that the underlying political question of our time?

It’s not going to be solved here but thanks for reading anyway,
Ezra Fischer

Why does the UK have 4 national football (soccer) teams?

Dear Sports Fan,

Currently there is the UEFA European Championship in football (soccer) taking place and the UK has 3 teams participating: England, Wales and North Ireland. It could have been 4 if Scotland qualified. It is the same for FIFA World Cups, the UK always sends four teams to the qualifications.

The UK seems to be the only country in the world which has 4 football teams even though it is considered as one country almost everywhere.

Why does the UK / why is the UK allowed to send more than one team to international football tournaments? Is it actually the same for other sports?

Thanks,
Rob

— — —

Dear Rob,

The United Kingdom (UK) is not alone. There are more than 20 members of FIFA (the primary organization that runs international soccer) that are not independent countries as recognized by the United Nations. For example, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands compete separately from the United States even though they are U.S. territories. Hong Kong and Macau have their own teams despite being special autonomous regions of China. In addition to the four you mentioned, the United Kingdom has several more teams that fall within its large historical umbrella: Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks & Caicos Islands, and Gibraltar.

When I began looking into this question, my assumption was that FIFA liked maintaining a separate sense of what constitutes a “country” than the U.N. because it likes to imagine it is an international organization with power and influence on the level of the U.N. (And maybe this is true to some extent) Then I read Luke Bradshaw’s story of Paul Watson’s quest to bring the tiny island of Pohnpei into FIFA. I discovered that “As a non-governmental organization, FIFA is legally obliged to accept membership applications for states that want to join.” FIFA is allowed to create application requirements and they leverage those to stall applications they don’t like.

Of course, FIFA is not the only organization the runs international competitions, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is another. Unlike in FIFA, the UK sends a single team to the Olympics, not four constituent teams. However, they (almost) never send any soccer teams at all. That’s because they are worried that if they played soccer as the UK in the Olympics, FIFA might rescind their ability to play soccer as individual nations in the World Cup. One exception to this was during the 2012 Olympics which were in London — the UK took the calculated risk of playing soccer as the host and it worked out just fine.

There’s a clear downside to playing separately. Two of the best soccer players in the world over the past decade have never played in the World Cup because of it. Kim Little and Gareth Bale have been superstars in club soccer but haven’t ever been able to shine on the biggest stage of all because they were born in Scotland and Wales respectively and even their skills have not been enough to drag these smaller nations into the World Cup. That will change next year for Kim Little whose Scottish team just qualified last night for the 2019 World Cup in France with a 2-1 win over Albania!

The underlying “why” question remains. Why not play as the United Kingdom? The desire to play for Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland or England instead of a consolidated United Kingdom must be rooted in national pride and history. It’s maintained by negotiated agreement. The Home Nations agreement between the four regions sets out who is eligible to play for which of them and is much stricter than the general FIFA rules that allow quite liberally for (often Brazilians) to play for all sorts of national teams around the world.

As for other sports, that’s got to be a question for another day!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer