Roughing the Ref
The other day, Joe Posnanski mentioned something in passing—an “outtake,” in his words—during an extensive post on why Aaron Nola's 2018 stats are so incredibly good by certain statistical measures, and whether those measure are wrong or Nola's really that good (spoiler: the measures are wrong).
What he mentioned in passing was about reffing in the NFL:
The referees immediately called it an incomplete pass [in the Philly-Chicago playoff game two weeks ago] because it's not humanly possible to officiate an NFL game. I don't mean this facetiously. It is not humanly possible to officiate an NFL game. The game moves too fast, there's too much happening at once, the rules are too vague and teams work harder at breaking the rules than referees could ever work at upholding them.
Calling an NFL game is like trying to police a 42.4 mph speed limit (or maybe it's 37.3 mph speed limit) on the Autobahn if the cars were (only in specific ways) allowed to crash into each other.
Watching a different game that weekend (Seahawks vs. Cowboys), I had the exact some thought.
It was the 4th quarter, Seahawks were still down by 3, and they had the ball on their own 20 with 9:33 to go. So here we go! First pass from scrimmage, gain of six. No, wait. Penalty on us: holding. Now it's first and 20 at the 10.
So here we go! Another short pass, five yards. No, wait. Penalty on us: unncessary roughness. Now it's second and 22 at the 8.
All of that kind of killed that drive. We wound up punting, they wound up scoring (to go ahead by 10), we wound up scoring (to bring it within 2), but then flubbed the onside kick and that was the game and the season.
I‘ve spent a lifetime listening to my father yelling at the refs on Sunday afternoons in Minnesota, and I kind of did the same during that drive at a Seattle bar, but it also made me think. How many refs are there on the field? Seven? How many umps during a MLB game? Four? Six during the postseason? But think of the difference in responsibilities. In baseball, the job is basically to follow the ball. That’s really it. If a player leads off an inning with a single to right, umps won't have to look at the center-fielder or left-fielder or third baseman or shortstop; they won't factor. Just follow the ball and follow the runner.
In football, refs have to watch every single player on every single play. Even a guy across the field from where the action is. He could do something—flag!—that brings the play back. Imagine if that happened in baseball. “Sorry, Felix, that's not a strikeout; the third baseman did X while you were throwing the ball.”
I don't know how refs do it. I suppose we should stop yelling at them and take in the enormity of the task.
Longtime readers may notice there is no more comments field on EL.com. Been thinking about removing this for a while, since it was a bit clunky-looking and most people know how to contact me anyway. If you don‘t, check out the bio page or the Twitter feed.
The deathknell came from a spammer, stephane3constant, who, on Jan. 11, placed 14 comments on 14 posts that were all basically ads. Each of these had to be removed individually, which is a pain, particularly when you add in remembering exactly how to do it. That always takes me a while. So I finally said, “Enough. Tim, let’s just remove it.” Now gone.
Have to admit: I feel sorry for anyone who felt placing spam on my site would help them in any way.
Movie Review: Borg vs. McEnroe (2017)
Turns out some of my 1970s heroes were the opposite of what I thought they were.
Back then, Steve Martin seemed the hippest host of the hippest show on television; but then you read his autobiography, “Born Standing Up,” and realize what an absolute square he was. He was such a square that while others were marching for civil rights, or against the war in Vietnam, he was doing magic tricks at Knotts Berry Farm. That’s like writing online movie reviews during the Trump era.
And if there was anything we knew about five-time Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg, it was this: He was emotionless. Borg’s smiling face appeared on the cover of Time magazine in June 1980, and I remember adults commenting on how odd it looked. Borg didn’t smile. He was a tennis machine. He was an ice machine.
Not so much, it turns out.
Did anyone else think of “The Natural? At the end of that movie, Roy Hobbs, an old, hobbled man of 39, fresh from the hospital, faces a blonde-haired, strong-armed boy from the farmland. He faces his younger self, in other words. In a perverse way, that’s Borg here. The revelation—both in “Borg vs. McEnroe” and the excellent HBO documentary “Fire and Ice”—is that as a very young man Borg wasn’t ice; he was fire. He was so passionate, so determined to win, he kept running into trouble. To succeed in Sweden, he had to learn to subsume his rage. And he did. Maybe if he’d grown up on Long Island, like McEnroe, he could’ve let loose.
Did anyone else think of Philip Roth’s “The Anatomy Lesson”? In that novel, Roth’s doppelganger, Nathan Zuckerman, is a huge success, a literary lion, but he’s also just received a deathbed curse from his father and can’t write anymore. He has constant backpain—perhaps psychosomatic—and dreams of going to med school and becoming the nice Jewish doctor every parent wants. At the least, he wants a different job. At most, he wants to be a different person.
That’s Borg as the movie starts. Early on, we see him duck into a café in France to avoid fans. The man running the place doesn’t recognize him, which, given his celebrity status, not to mention his distinctive, iconic look—long hair, headband, eyes close together—was like not recognizing Ali in his prime. But it’s a relief for Borg. Hanging in the café, he pretends to be an electrician named Rune. He pretends to be his father. Anything other than being himself.
Borg, here, is not too cold; he’s too hot. The superstitions of sports fans are nothing next to him. Wade Boggs (eating chicken every lunch for 20 years because the first time he did it he went 4-4) is a piker in comparison. Borg has to do everything the same way: stay at the same hotel, ride in the same car, and on the same side, eat the same foods. All of that was necessary to get him to the top and so he has to keep doing it. Because the only place he can go from there is down. And that’s death. What does his coach, Lenert Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), say? It’s first or nothing for him. Second or third might as well be 1,000th. “When he starts losing,” Bergelin says, “it’s over.”
Excellent casting, by the way. Sverrir Gudnason is Bjorn Borg’s physical doppelganger and Shia LaBeouf is John McEnroe’s temperamental one. In a way, LeBeouf’s is beyond typecasting. He’s like meta-typecasting. It would be a joke if it weren’t so perfect.
As doppelgangers go, Gudnason is slightly better looking than Borg and a whole lot older. He was about 39 when this was filmed. Whereas Borg in 1980—when most of this is set? After winning four straight Wimbledons and going for his fifth, and seeming like the grand old man of tennis? I was shocked when I found out. He’d just turned 24 years old. He won his first Wimbledon at 19 and his last at 24 and he retired at 26.
Anyway, that’s the dynamic. Each man isn’t quite who he seems to be on the court or in the press. McEnroe is studied and measured, Borg is seething behind his mask. He’s a bit of an asshole; he pushes everyone away. He mocks his coach. “What are you going to do—drone on about your lousy three quarter finals?” he says. Those were crowning achievements for Bergelin, but to Borg it’s not No. 1 so it might as well be nothing. “When did it stop being fun?” his girlfriend asks him. The movie, Swedish, makes McEnroe seem healthy in comparison.
They’re almost the same. They’re battling each other, sure, but they’re also battling us.
“Everyone acts like this is easy,” Borg complains privately. “You don’t understand what it takes to play tennis,” McEnroe says publicly.
Is this dynamic enough to sustain a feature-length film? Yes.
Did I want more? Yes.
Stockholm is closer to Minnesota than Long Island
I’d forgotten that McEnroe won the mythic 18-16 tie-breaking set. Borg was up two sets to one, and he had seven match points, and McEnroe beat back each one, and won the set, and forced the fifth. What I would’ve liked from the movie? A greater sense of how Borg culled up what reserves he had to win. How do you come back from that? How do you not tumble? He didn’t. Is it glorious—not tumbling—or is it part of the same psychosis? You can’t tumble because that’s death. He’s beating back death.
For what it’s worth, I was a Borg guy when all of this was going on; I hated McEnroe. I suppose I should’ve been rooting for the American, just on principle, but it wasn’t even a question. The way Borg did it, unsmiling and professional, is the way I thought you did it. It was Bud Grant and Harmon Killebrew. You didn’t celebrate when you hit a homerun or scored a touchdown, you just bowed your head and trotted the bases or back to the bench. You were almost embarrassed. In this way, Stockholm was closer to Minnesota than Long Island. Still is.
Borg won the 1980 battle but McEnroe won the war. The McEnroes of the world are everywhere now. What I thought was the norm is now a quaint anomaly. I miss it.
Quote of the Day
“If the US has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell. He stoked the hyperpolarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could. As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more. Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments.”
Christopher R. Browning, “The Suffocation of Democracy,” in The New York Review of Books
Movie Review: Mid90s (2018)
“Mid90s,” written and directed by Jonah Hill, is a coming-of-age movie that took me back to my own coming of age.
It shouldn’t have. I turned 12 in the mid-70s not the mid-90s, in Minneapolis not LA, and definitely not around skateboarding culture. At Stevie’s age, I would’ve been writing and drawing comic books, not mastering moves on a board. I never wanted to be a rebel, or hang with them, particularly not anyone like Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), all wild hair and attitude and not much else—one of two leaders of a rag-tag group that hang out in a skate shop and periodically rouse the rabble.
But here’s what took me back: reaching a certain age, 10, 12, and suddenly having to navigate shit you’re supposed to know but have no clue about. It’s generally stuff about girls, and sex, or about how to act with guys. What to say, what not to say, and when. What’s cool and what isn’t. What are the rules? Where are the rules? At such moments, ignorance isn’t bliss. It can make you the butt of jokes for years.
Your shit for their shit
Here’s an example from my childhood—probably around 6th grade. My friend Dan and I were walking along 54th Street toward Little General and Rexall’s Drugs, most likely to buy comic books. I think it was winter. It always seemed like winter back then. Dan, who was the same grade as me but older by a month, and who used the cutting remark “You’re too young to understand” too often, said he had a joke. He ran thumb and forefinger along the sides of his mouth, which was puckered like a gaping fish, and said, “Blower’s cramp. Get it?” I, of course, didn’t. I knew there was something about “blowing” that had something to do with ... girls? But I didn’t know what it was. Most times I would’ve just lied; I would’ve pretended to be more sophisticated than I was. But something in the quick way Dan said “Get it?” made me think otherwise. So I said no. “You don’t?” he asked in disbelief. No, I said, what is it? Eventually he had to own up it meant nothing. “It was just a test,” he said. I had passed. For now.
That’s Stevie (Sunny Suljic) here. The movie begins with a nasty beatdown from his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). The two live in a cramped house with their single, mostly absent mom, Dabney (Katherine Waterston, just four years from playing the object of Joaquin Phoenix’s affection in “Inherent Vice”), and they all seem isolated. Ian exudes inarticulate anger. Stevie is sweet but trapped; he’s looking for an out.
Why skateboarders? Is it because they seem to do what they want when they want? Would he have drifted toward them without the beatings from Ian? Either way, he does. He lingers in the skate shop, hangs on the outskirts of their conversation. The first to acknowledge him is the youngest, Ruben (Gio Galicia), who probably wants a protégé of his own. He wants someone beneath him. When Ray (Na-kel Smith), for example, admonishes Ruben for drinking all the water from the jug and tells him to go fill it up, Ruben gives the task to Stevie—who is delighted. It’s his in. It’s the preteen boy’s crush on older boys.
Ruben is the one forever telling Stevie he failed the test. Like saying “thank you”? What the fuck, dude? That’s for fags. And the skateboard he bought from his older brother? With the ’80s cartoon figure on it? What is he—a kid? That’s for fags, too.
There are other unspoken rules Stevie is trying to navigate—specific to the gang. Who gets nicknames and who doesn’t? Fuckshit is Fuckshit because he begins so many sentences with “Fuck, shit...” Fourth Grade (Ryder McGlaughlin), who spends more time filming than skating, is a bit on the dumb side. Stevie acquires the nickname “Sunburn” because he asks Ray if black dudes get sunburned. Ruben is mortified the question is asked, then more mortified that Ray doesn’t really seem to mind it; that it leads to this nickname, which seems like a badge of honor. That’s Ruben’s role: entrée for Stevie, eyeing him with jealousy forever after.
I like how this gang of kids, which seems monolithic from the outside, breaks down into individuals the more Stevie hangs with them. Fuckshit, with his light-brown skin and blonde curly hair, is the mouthy one, the stoner, the guy ready to fight. He’s probably the most affluent, too. He rebels because he can afford to. Ray can’t. Ray is looking to see what money can be made in skateboarding. He’s looking for a way out. He’s also the wisest. In a late-movie heart-to-heart, he tells Stevie:
A lot of the time, we feel that our lives are the worst. But I think that if you looked in anybody else's closet, you wouldn't trade your shit for their shit.
Cf., Ruben. They drop him off at a motel-like place but Stevie sees him bolt down the steps after he goes up them. Meaning he doesn’t really live there? Or he does but can’t return? Or won’t? We never find out.
I particularly like this aspect of “Mid90s”: The arc of the movie is Stevie slowly fitting in with a gang that’s slowly breaking apart.
Only if you’re really interested
Does it end too quickly? Did for me. I guess that’s a compliment (we want more) but it still isn’t (it wasn’t as fulfilling as it might’ve been). The car crash is done well. Fuckshit is driving, fucked up, and arguing with Ray; and Fourth Grade, who isn’t supposed to know any better, is the one to speak up: “Could you, like, pull over?” But it’s already too late. As soon as the words are out, the car is upended, on its side, and Stevie is in the hospital. His mom arrives to see the gang asleep in the waiting area. Does she soften toward them? Should she? Then the boys go into the room. They talk. Fourth Grade brings his movie, his video of them. They watch it.
It ends in a vacuum but in a way it began there, too. Did Stevie have any friends before? Usually when you make the leap to a new group, particularly a planned leap, as Stevie does here, there’s at least a friend you leave behind. We get no inkling of this. It’s just his abusive older brother, his absentee mom, and him. No friends, no school, no nothing. Kayla in “Eighth Grade” was like this, too. Don’t any junior high kids have friends as they make the leap toward older, cooler friends?
That said, I really love this movie. I think of the scene where the gang skateboards between traffic down the middle of an LA hill in the magic-hour light, with the Mamas and Papas’ “Dedicated to the One I Love” on the soundtrack. The scene is reprised near the end with just Stevie and Ray, after their heart-to-heart, and to Morrissey’s “We’ll Let You Know”:
How sad are we?
And how sad have we been?
We‘ll let you know
We’ll let you know
Oh, but only if, you're really interested
The magic hour is gone, and what light is there is bruised. It’s aching.
I was spending my Saturday night like the rebel-rouser that I am, trying to translate a 30-year-old Chinese song called “Chichi dedeng” (“Foolishly waiting” is the best I can come up with), when I came across this post on Twitter that made me just stop everything:
He is https://t.co/1pFpQG9ynM— Ted Boutrous (@BoutrousTed) January 13, 2019
In case you don't know: Ted Boutrous is one of the top appellate lawyers in the country. He works for the law firm Gibson Dunn, whose biggest name is probably former solicitor general Ted Olson, who repped Bush in Bush v. Gore and Citizens United in the Citizens United decision. So not exactly leaning left. Boutrous isn't that, and he's been a vocal social media and legal opponent of Trump since the get-go, but he's a respected attorney for a respected firm. He wouldn't make random public charges about anyone, let alone a vindictive president of the United States. This feels new. This feels real.
Here's the beginning of the WaPost piece by Greg Miller:
President Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including on at least one occasion taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials, current and former U.S. officials said.
Read the whole thing.
Trump is denying everything, of course. One day the truth will out. That day feels closer and closer.
Quote of the Day
“I think Edgar's one of the 50 greatest hitters who ever lived.”
Joe Posnanski on Edgar Martinez in his series on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot this year. It's Edgar last year before the BBWAA. Looks like he has a chance to make it. In Pos' piece, there are even nicer quotes on Edgar from pitchers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera. Slouches, all.
Edgar, waiting his turn.
‘Lin-Manuel Miranda Liked Your Reply’
I was working late the other night, occasionally distracted by the usual social-media suspects when I came across this on Twitter: one of my guys commenting on one of my other guys.
Every day I come to this platform to say the same blessed things as this great heart, binding me in fellowship to every other sacred soul in our glorious human drama. And then some pratfalling fuckstumble tries to tell me what he really thinks and my words just end up different. https://t.co/LdlCtTpeV9— David Simon (@AoDespair) January 8, 2019
I love that Simon called Miranda “this great heart.” I also love “pratfalling fuckstumble,” but that's par for Simon's course. The creator of “The Wire” is also the creator of the best epithets in social media. Or anywhere, really. He's a Mozart in the arena.
Anyway, I responded with the obvious: “We need you both.” I was kind of thinking “The Enemy Within,” the fifth episode of “Star Trek” TOS, when Kirk gets split in two—the kind that bleeds and the kind that cuts—and how each needed the other. Mostly I was thinking how both men are heroes to me. We need both to help keep us sane and interested and honest and engaged.
Very quickly I got this.
So my year is done. I can't ask anything more of it.
OK, maybe if our pratfalling president fuckstumbled his way out of office. I could dig that, too.