Welcome to The Week in Sportswriting, where Chris Dunn outlines the top sports stories of the past week.
The Ringer, Michael Baumann
When news broke that Game 4 of the NLDS between the Cubs and Nationals would be postponed by a day because of rain, talk immediately started over who would pitch for the Nationals. Given the extra day, many expected their ace Stephen Strasburg would take the mound. He eventually did, and the Nationals won, but not until a series of conflicting reports were sent out regarding how his sickness could keep him out of the game. In the day leading up to the game, talking heads and former players weighed in on the situation, almost universally criticizing Strasburg. In this piece, Baumann takes down the absurdity, as well as the toxicity, of such arguments, and questions what kind of culture demonizes somebody for the simple crime of getting sick.
SB Nation, Grant Brisbee
The Houston Astros have never won a World Series. They have never even won a World Series game. And yet, no one seems to bring them up when discussing the long droughts of the Cubs, the Indians, or the Red Sox. There are no fun stories or mythologized curses in this team’s history. This is the point that Brisbee starts out with, and he goes on to write a beautiful ode to the city and the baseball team that calls it home. At some points funny and at other points heart wrenching, this piece manages to tie in the team’s 56 year long history with the even longer history of the city, which has recently been hurt by a hurricane and subsequent flooding. Careful to illustrate just how important the team is to the city in this moment, they are only playing a game after all, Brisbee paints a portrait of an Astros team that is all but impossible to root against.
The Ringer, John Gonzalez
Joel Embiid will be a transcendent player, the kind of once-in-a-lifetime talent that defines a team for a decade. Or he won’t. He’ll lead the Sixers out of the Process and into the Promised Land. Or he won’t. He’ll play 40 games this year. Or he won’t. This is the problem with Embiid, who is the walking embodiment of the concept of ‘potential energy.’ There’s simply no way to say just what he’ll end up being, but recent Ringer hire, and former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, John Gonzalez, does a strong job of showing where the could-be star is, and how he got there in the franchise. Gonzalez describes the center, who just received a max extension from the franchise, as “a reality star missing from the one reality that matters most: the NBA court,” in what is perhaps the most succinct biography one could make for the Cameroonian 23 year old. Embiid’s new contract means that the Sixers are tying their future to the young star, a gamble that will only work if, well, he plays.
The New Yorker, Clint Smith
When the US Men’s National Team took the field against Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night, experts had the team at over a 90% chance of qualifying for the World Cup. Things looked good for the Yanks, who had struggled throughout much of the qualifying stage, but had stepped up the game before. Just a few hours later, things looked their very worst. Clint Smith, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard and occasional contributor to the New Yorker, outlined just how wide the impacts of Tuesday night’s loss will be. In a country where soccer is often considered the forgotten little brother of the sporting world, the World Cup offers the potential to show off the sport at its best, and excite the country and the young players who just may suit up for the men’s team one day. The World Cup offers a chance for fans, players, and teams of 32 different countries to compete, rejoice, and cooperate in the beautiful game. Next year, it will happen without the United States. Tuesday’s loss has been called the worst in USMNT history, and Smith doesn’t miss the obvious metaphor for its timing.
The Undefeated, J.A. Adande
In an age when amateurism is all but a meaningless term, NCAA scandals have a tendency to create archetypes. There’s usually the athlete in question’s greedy father. The questionably oblivious administration. Some sort of shady third party. Mostly, the story is one of higher-ups: the head coach, the athletic director, and the wealthy booster or corporate executive. Rarely is the story of the middle men, the ones who actually get their hands dirty, told. Nor is the story of ‘why’ told. Just why it is that these backroom deals are often facilitated by older assistant coaches, trying to make a name for themselves and do a job that is constantly expanding in role. Adande, a brilliant writer and now the director of the sports journalism program at Northwestern, begins to tell this story, especially in relation to the bombshell FBI report that rocked the sports world a few weeks ago. There are only 13 black head coaches among the 75 major-conference teams, and so the next time a story like this breaks, and as long as the players go officially unpaid, there will be another story. Think beyond the archetypes.