Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Atlantic Drops the Ball (And Hef Misses the Point)

There may be no more prestigious byline for a writer than to get published in The Atlantic. We could quibble -- The New Yorker certainly belongs in the conversation -- but the point is, those hallowed pages represent the pinnacle. And so when something like "The Accidental Spectator's Guide to Improving Sports" slips through the cracks as it did in the latest issue of the magazine it is infuriating.

The premise is simple: Juliet Lapidos is not a sports fan. But "since reaching adulthood" she has "watched, or rather been in the room while other people have watched, countless hours of throwing, catching, and flopping." From that vantage point she has suggestions to improve the experience of watching four sports (baseball, football, basketball and soccer) and boy is the dumb strong in this one. There is the possibility that this represents an attempt at humor, which would actually be better even though it is utterly witless.

I'm not going to parse the whole thing -- if you're even remotely a sports fan you can subject yourself to it. But the first one she goes after in baseball:
America’s pastime is always around and therefore easy to take for granted. Teams play 162 games each season—and that’s before the endless playoffs, whose monotonous best-of-fives lead up to the agonizing best-of-seven World Series.

Luckily, there’s a simple solution. Major League Baseball could inflate the value of each individual game by reducing the total number played each year. Chop the regular season down by 25 or 30 percent. Give the postseason a haircut, too: best-of-three is good enough for the earlier playoffs, and best-of-five is plenty for the World Series.
Well, she's right that she knows nothing about sports. The solution to deciding a champion is not to shorten postseason series. As it is the biggest problem with the postseason is that the sample size, far from being too big, is actually far too small. One of the central arguments in Moneyball is that for everything teams do to build a championship team that can compete in the regular season the postseason is hugely dependent on luck and outlier performances. Only the division rounds are five game series (which follow one-game play-in Wild Cards that are useless in determining the best team), after which the League Championship Series and the World Series are seven games long each.

Her suggestions for basketball, football, and soccer are no better. And what is frustrating is that I know two dozen people personally who would both love to get a page to write about sports in The Atlantic and who are far more qualified to do so both as writers and as people who actually know things about sports.

(And while I'm piling on, later in the same issue in a last-page feature called "The Big Question" a baker's dozen of famous people respond to the query "What party would you most like to have attended?" Hugh Hefner seems to have missed the point of one of the classic books in the American literature canon:

A party thrown by Jay Gatsby. I was born in 1926 and grew up during the Great Depression. I read The Great Gatsby in college, and it became my favorite book. It reflected a lifestyle that I identified with very much, so when I started Playboy, I tried to project a contemporary variation of the Roaring Twenties and Gatsby's lifestyle.
 Hef, baby, you're an icon for generations of men. But The Great Gatsby isn't really a celebration of the bitchin' West Egg parties. 

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