Over/Under

(Pic from Bloomberg’s ‘The Outsized Legacy of Memorial Stadium’)

Steve – What was the first baseball game you attended and what do you remember about it? What was the first election you voted in? What have been the most significant changes in both institutions since then?

Ian – My first game was actually a doubleheader – it was against the Chicago White Sox at Memorial Stadium during the Orioles’ infamous 1988 season. I’ve gone back to look at the box scores and The Orioles won Game 1 6-4, while Chicago took the nightcap 2-0.

(The Chicago Tribune’s lede from that day was cute: “The bus bearing the White Sox to Memorial Stadium before Tuesday night`s double-header with the Orioles took an oddly circuitous route, heading south toward Washington, D.C. for several miles instead of north to the ballpark. The driver eventually got the coach turned around in the right direction, but the compass points indicate the Sox are still traveling nowhere – at least in the standings.”)

Apparently Maryland Eastern Shore native and Baseball Hall of Famer Harold Baines went 3 for 4 with a home run in Game 2, but we left midway through from what I am told. My main memory is just stepping into the stadium and seeing the signs in center field and being like “wow, it’s so much bigger than TV”. Oh, and an usher had to turn us around because my mom got confused and we actually had upper box seats, not seats in the lower bowl.

I’m pretty sure the first election I voted in was Kerry-Bush in 2004. I was in college in DC and my interest in politics was probably at an all-time low. I voted for Kerry but was not particularly put out when Bush won. I had a girlfriend from Massachusetts who was much more upset about it.

I actually see a lot of similarities between baseball and American democracy because since I was a child the players in both have been using high-level data to exploit weaknesses in the structure of both. There is a lot of gaming the system, which results in actual practices that are a lot different than those who created the rules intended; whether we’re talking about extreme gerrymandering or five-man infields.

Steve – And the first soccer game you went to? What is it about the beautiful game that most appeals to you? What makes it different from other sports you follow, and when did you first start writing about it?

Ian – The first soccer game I went to of any real note was a game at the 1994 World Cup between Bolivia and South Korea in Foxboro. Oddly I have more vivid memories of watching Daniel Amokachi score his famous goal that tournament for Nigeria a couple nights before on TV. The main relic from that trip to Foxboro was an Argentina shirt that, because it was the 90s, was deemed the correct size for a large 10-year-old. It still fits me today.

Honestly what sold me more on soccer was these videos we used to watch at lunch at this soccer camp in Ocean City Maryland, run by Bobby McAvan who was then the coach of the Baltimore Blast. You’ve probably seen a lot of them: The 101 best goals of the 1987 English 1st Division season and stuff like that. The passion that existed when goals were scored and the artistry and euphoria behind them was something I had just never experienced in American sports. I always identified with intense moments, and what sport has more intense moments than football?

When I was 15 I covered the James M. Bennett Clippers’ high school boys team for the school paper, called The Log, while also serving as the second choice goalkeeper. Some real conflict-of-interest stuff. We ended up going all the way to the State final that year, thanks in part to a foreign exchange student from Spain who played as our No. 10. It’s telling that at the time I still didn’t understand the game well enough to know how good he was. Maybe eight years later, I came across the coach of the high school whom we beat in the semifinals and he still remembered the kid. Alberto Sarimiento. He is now back in Spain and a pretty hardcore cyclist, from what I see on Facebook and Strava.

Steve –  We’ve just had quite a remarkable World Cup – on and off the field. For some fans it was something of a struggle to separate the actual tournament from the context of how we ended up here; from the shadow of corruption around Fifa to censorship to the claims of “sportswashing” surrounding the host nation.

Do you think the credibility of Fifa and this tournament will have been permanently undermined, or will those sorts of concerns inevitably recede with time in the light of what was obviously a totally memorable final like we just saw?

Ian – I’m not sure why any one particular incident could undermine Fifa’s credibility when so many similar episodes have come before it. Qatar was certainly an odd World Cup, but maybe in some ways Russia was worse because everyone went along with the long con and just enjoyed without really asking questions, even while the home side was pretty obviously doping. I know I count myself among that group.

Qatar had all sorts of problematic issues, but it was also just very different in other ways that have nothing to do with politics or morality or human rights. It was basically a one-city World Cup, the first in the Arab World and the first without in-stadium beer sales. And of course the first in the winter in the Northern Hemisphere. That makes it sort of an easy target where other tournaments with similar problematic issues at some level – Russia, South Africa recently – maybe were not.

We act like these things are unprecedented but they’re almost as old as the tournament itself.

It’s fair to say there were probably more human rights violations that we know of directly related to this World Cup than any tournament before. But I hardly believe the Qatari government is the only human rights violator to have held a tournament. Also, as much as Gianni Infantino’s remarks about Western hypocrisy in judging an Arab country were made in bad faith, he sorta had a point. Not to absolve Fifa by any stretch. But I do think there are some ways in which Qatar is an easy punching bag for the West.

Steve – How do you think Fox – and the media in general – performed in their coverage of the tournament; both in terms of the games themselves and that broader context we mentioned? Is the quality of US soccer journalism generally improving?

Ian – I thought Fox‘s coverage was almost unwatchable but I also think their studio coverage of the NFL is unwatchable so in a way maybe it’s refreshing to see them treat the World Cup like a major sport. I think the quality of broadcast coverage of sports in the US in general has declined. The coverage of soccer has improved but partly because most of it is still a fairly niche audience so they can get away with appealing to a more informed fan. Even like what NBC does with the Premier League, I’m not sure they are quite as nuanced on their NFL coverage because there are so many more casual fans tuned in.

That said, I don’t agree with Fox’s approach and I think networks do a disservice to viewers by keeping sports as sports. Sports are intensely human and political and the tough conversations they create need to happen. But Americans aren’t really having any sort of political conversations at this point other than sort of screaming at each other based on the siloed information they are receiving.

Soccer coverage in print/web has grown tremendously but it is still a problem that far too few people are able to do it full-time and make a decent living at it. Part of that is because legacy institutions missed a chance to take it seriously and now won’t get the same return covering soccer as they will some other second-tier American sport because independent outlets have grown up that are doing it better with part-timers or hobbyists.

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Steve –  You’ve been writing a lot recently about how sports betting is changing the way viewers interact with the tournament and what that means for fans, who have clearly embraced the concept since it was made legal in all 50 states. The growth of granular data analysis in sports – often driven by fantasy games – has changed both the way sports are played and the way they’re watched.

With mobile sports betting launching here in Maryland during the World Cup, are we getting to a point where betting technology – like technology in general, perhaps – is moving too fast for legislators and regulators to keep up?

Ian – I mean, I’m not sure legislators keep up with much of anything in real time. Sports betting probably isn’t a lot different. So I think the cat is sort of out of the bag, and there was a lot of lip service paid to rolling out mobile wagering in a well thought out manner that was just never going to happen. That doesn’t mean I am against mobile sports betting; just that I think politicians told popular lies to some people to make it more palatable to the general public.

Also as a point of clarity sports wagering is still not legal in all 50 states. Each state has their own process for doing that. I think most will get there for fear of losing revenue to other states, but maybe not all.

Update: Since our conversation, Ohio became the latest state to introduce a legal sports betting structure, using perhaps the most obvious local pitchman for their launch…

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Steve – How did your own bets perform during the tournament? I know when we were watching the US-Iran game you were attentively counting corner kicks – what was your best bet, and one you’d maybe rather forget?

Ian – I had a negative tournament overall but short tournaments are almost impossible. By the time you figure out who a team is the competition is basically over.

I was happy with how I handicapped the USA games for the most part and my best bet was probably hitting the money line draw on England vs USA at better than 3 to 1 odds. The worst was probably more the bets I thought about but did not play in the final, and there were several: Argentina to score 30 to 45, both teams to score 2 or more goals, Argentina to score on a penalty, draw and both teams to score. As it was I came out even on the final but for really believing accurately that it would be a more open contest than oddsmakers thought I did not do that well. That’s the kind of thing where in a league season that luck evens out quickly over time but it’s a little tougher to take over the course of a full tournament.

Steve – I want to expand those thoughts a little in terms of the recent growth of political betting markets and the extent that they – along with a chaotic social media landscape – reflect the constantly fluctuating, instant event-driven mood of a betting community, if not the electorate. Is there a danger that it becomes one more way that people become disconnected from politics?

Also, what’s the “next big thing” in the betting world? Esports?

Ian – Political markets are interesting. We are actually not allowed to bet them in the USA but they certainly exist offshore and the like. [Political pundit] Nate Silver believes at times they can be a lot more useful than inside-the-beltway political narratives but of course that they also have limits.

I don’t think the American public pays attention to political betting markets in the way perhaps the British do. There are a lot more pressing concerns to me in terms of our political process than that.

As far as Esports, I think this is probably right. It’s not something I would claim to know a lot about though.  Also probably just the continued growth of what you can bet on in live action rather than pregame will keep growing. That’s a way to tie in many more kinds of bettors than you might have had before the days of the internet.

Steve –  Looking ahead to the next World Cup, to be held here in the Americas, What’s your honest assessment of the prospects for a US squad that was one of the youngest this time around?  Will it be more difficult for players to develop without the competitiveness of a qualifying campaign?

You wrote after the US went out to the Netherlands that the US should “congratulate [coach] Gregg Berhalter and then hire someone new” – who would you suggest and why? Does the next move have to be a foreign coach?

(Note: Our conversation took place before the latest story surrounding Berhalter broke)

Whoever is in charge, do you think 2026 – with the tournament set to expand significantly from 32 to 48 teams – will turn out to be as much of a watershed for domestic soccer development as 1994 turned out to be?

Also, looking at how soccer is marketed in the US, and how that’s likely to ramp up as 2026 approaches, I wonder if you think there are any contrasts or similarities with how MLB is consciously expanding its global identity and taking America’s game to the rest of the world?

Ian – This is obviously a big question. There is so much unknown coming into the 2026 tournament because so much of it will be very different. We talk about the loss of competitive qualifying matches, but we also don’t really know how competitive qualifying will be with a 48-team field anyway. I think it’s safe to say it will still be difficult in Africa even though the continent will see its number of berths nearly double, just because African teams have probably been the most underrepresented in recent times. And it will continue to be difficult in Europe, where there won’t be that many additional berths given. But I’m not sure you’d be missing a lot by missing a Concacaf competition where 6 teams reach the tournament. Same thing with South America (at least six teams) and Asia (At least 8.)

As far as the coaching question, I think the standard for any international manager to stay on the job has to be far higher than a club manager. In the club game, you’re playing meaningful matches at least every week. This gives a manager a chance to have his loyalties proven right or wrong on a regular basis and change his squad accordingly. This doesn’t happen in the international game. And when you’re facing a situation like 2026 where you really won’t have many chances to test your first-choice squad, it can lead to a lot of poor squad decisions. It’s just human nature for managers to be loyal to guys that were the best choice 4 years ago but might not be now.

So I don’t think Berhalter did a bad job overall. But I don’t think he proved anything so exceptional that you couldn’t get another manager to bring in a different perspective and re-level the playing field for the squad that contributed to this last four years and those players who didn’t but might be a better selection for 2026. I don’t think it has to be an international coach. It should be an experienced coach though. And one who has demonstrated traits that I think are more important in international football.

In American Football, there’s a famous quote from a well-known head coach named Bum Phillips about legendary Alabama Football coach Bear Bryant: “Bryant can take his’n and beat your’n, and then he can turn around and take your’n and beat his’n.” I think that captures what you really need in the international game – someone who is truly adaptive to all the talent that is eligible to you rather than beholden to a system, which I think Berhalter was a bit too much at times. The other really important part of the job is recruiting players who have options to be a part of your setup. To be fair to Berhalter, he was excellent at that second part.

The name I would be most interested in right now is Hugo Perez. He’s a former U.S. international of Salvadoran descent who guided El Salvador through the final round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying. They finished second from the bottom, but they were extremely competitive in most of their games, and I think a neutral would argue they easily had the least talent of any squad in the final eight. They also did so without completely parking the bus, suggesting Perez would be able to coach well from a position of having more talent than the opponent rather than less.

Other names that I would consider include Jesse Marsch (should he not still be employed at Leeds in the near future), Orlando City coach Oscar Pareja, and LAFC coach and former U.S. national team fullback Steve Cherundolo. Cherundolo is a great example of a coach who probably would be easily on everyone’s short list with his CV if he wasn’t American. He played nearly his entire career at Hanover in the Bundesliga, and started his coaching career in German academies. And he might have had the most talented team in MLS in his first season at LAFC, but he was extremely good at managing personalities for someone with almost no experience at that. His tactics also would not deviate that far from what Berhalter played and could be a pretty smooth transition.

As far as the impact of the 2026 World Cup in the united states, I think it will be hard to compare to 1994 because the game is in a far different place. It’s an easy narrative to say the 1994 World Cup was a watershed moment for American soccer, and it was. But it also sort of lived on the fringes of the sports world at the time. (It didn’t help that the opening game fell on the same day as the O.J. Simpson Ford Bronco chase.) MLS was originally set to launch in 1995 but was eventually delayed a year. And it was in danger of folding in the early 2000s, which would have been an abject disaster.

The league survived I think in part just because it hung on long enough for the first couple generations of people who really grew up consistently playing the sport to become consumers. I suppose the World Cup didn’t hurt to that aim but I am not sure it was this huge causal event some people think it was.

I actually think 2026 could have a larger impact than 1994 because I think the whole sports media apparatus will buy in to a level they didn’t really in 1994. It will approach if not pass Summer Olympic level coverage. And you’ll have Americans who were maybe curious about the sport be able to immediately follow the 2026 world cup experience by exploring the robust domestic league system that exists now and provides a really strong experience for fans.

Steve – Finally, what are some of your favorite sports books or movies? What’s the greatest baseball movie for you?

Ian – This won’t surprise you, but my favorite sports book might be Weaver on Strategy, former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver’s tactical guide to baseball. Some of it is obviously dated (10-man pitching staffs ), but some of it is really fascinating and practical in terms of his views of man management and also matchups and probabilities. As you probably know, he engineered moneyball before Sabermetricians existed, and he did it only based on an intuitive sense of what the probabilities were rather than statistically significant data. That led to some flaws of course; but his general intuitive sense of probability was amazing. And the book, co-written by Terry Pluto, is really simply written and easy to digest. You could definitely read it in a day.

Another book I really appreciated was a memoir by Pat Conroy, the guy who wrote The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides, called My Losing Season. It was focused mostly on his senior year as a point guard at The Citadel, at which time he was still dealing with a lot of the trauma from an abusive childhood and the sort of outsider nature of being an athlete at a military institution, especially when your team isn’t very good. It’s a wonderful view into just how much emotional capital every athlete spends, even the ones that might be forgettable for the average sports journalist who attends a game. I relate to it on a personal level as someone who was a solid but unspectacular high school basketball player.

As far as baseball movies, I’m actually less of a fan of them as a genre than you might think. I’ve probably seen Field of Dreams at least 75 times, starting when I owned the VHS as a young kid, and can quote most of the movie by heart. But as an adult there’s actually some huge reservations I have about it; namely that the answer to preserving something beautiful and ideologically pure is to commercialize it. A Reaganist movie if there ever was one.

Steve – Not to mention the idea of having Shoeless Joe Jackson hit right-handed…

Ian – As for the other popular ones, I would never claim it’s a great movie, but my favorite baseball movie is probably Mr. Baseball, in which Tom Selleck plays an ageing former World Series MVP who gets dealt to Japan and struggles enormously (and hilariously) with cultural adjustments. At the time it got panned by some critics for not being culturally sensitive enough, but most of those critics missed the point that he was at least as at fault (if not more) for his situation in Japan than those who could not understand him in his new surroundings. It’s relatively predictable, but the live game scenes are some of the best baseball cinematography I’ve seen, and it’s really well acted.

You can tell Tom Selleck really enjoyed the role, a young Dennis Haysbert (who also played Pedro Cerrano in Major League) is also very good as his one American teammate, while the manager Ken Takakura’s transformation over the course of the movie steals the show for me. Like a good romantic comedy, you always sort of know where the story is going to end up, but the flourishes along the journey are of high enough quality to make it all enjoyable.

Ian and I after watching the US-Iran game, with the aforementioned Gregg Berhalter in the background applauding someone else…

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You can follow Ian on Twitter here where he links to his latest writing.

Take me back to the Conversations page.

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You might also enjoy my conversation with Mike Uy ‘It’s all entertainment, really…’

Maybe after the last thirty years I’m feeling a bit more cynical – as anyone would from ages eighteen to forty-eight – but in particular given the shit show above (which hasn’t even included supporting Tottenham in that time, nor insane nonsense like Leicester City winning the Premier League nor Cleveland winning a title in any sport let alone the NBA, let alone the whole deal with Chelsea or Manchester City et al) I feel like it’s forgivable.”