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30 for 30 review: Big Shot

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(Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the film or if you don’t know the story).

We havn’t done a review of a 30-for-30 documentary in a while because, well, it had been since April since one was released.  Now there’s been a whole bunch that premiered this month, and we’re catching up.

Here’s some quick thoughts on Big Shot, the story of John Spano‘s incredible story of financial fraud and duplicity that enabled him to “purchase” and control the New York Islanders hockey franchise for a brief period in the mid 1990s.  This film was directed and narrated by Kevin Connelly, better known as the character “E” from the HBO show Entourage.  Connelly grew up on Long Island, is a lifelong Islanders fan, and had intimately followed this entire story during his childhood.

On the whole, I did not think this was one of ESPN’s best films.  I disagreed with Bill Simmons‘ effusive praise to Connelly when they appeared on his podcast The B.S. Report, though in fairness it could have been a case of “stroking the ego” of the star.  Connelly should have gotten a professional narrator; his voice overs were amateurish and lacked the proper cadence for a serious documentary.  The film was 1.5 hours, probably 30 minutes too long for the story that it intended to tell.  Even with an hour and a half, there are basic details on Spano’s wikipedia page that went uncovered.   On the good side, the fact that Connelly got Spano on film (freshly released from his second stint in federal prison for financial fraud) really helps this story; I think back to the 30-for-30 piece on Allen Iverson that never featured the star player and the film comes of lacking.  Also, the wide list of interviews the film shows (including basically every player in the drama, including the NHL commissioner Gary Bettman) gives the film a lot of credit.  The podcast interview goes into some detail about this: Spano was very hesitant to do the interviews until realizing it was 30-for-30; had this been any other documentary he likelihood of Spano’s character getting completely trashed was high.

The story itself is amazing; Spano got an $80Million loan with almost no due diligence on the bank’s part.  $80 million.  Think about how much paperwork you went through the last time you bought a house or a car or a business loan.  And, it is amazing to think about this story and see how close Spano really came to pulling it off; he was within a couple of days of finding someone to make his first $17M payment, and you’d have to think with a year to make the next payment he could have found a way to continue the charade.  Also amazing to think is this: he *owned” the team; the papers were signed despite the money not showing up.  Its like the analogy in the film; if you sign over the title of your car to some other guy … that’s HIS car, whether or not you got any money for it.  Spano could have made this really, really ugly for the league when push came to shove, despite Bettman’s hollow statements that “the league never would have let” Spano continue to hold the team.

The funny thing is this; if you leave out the clear fraud, the phony documents, etc; this transaction was almost like an old school leveraged buyout.  You get loans covering nearly the entire purchase price of a company, using that same company as leverage, and then make the loan payments from the coffers of the newly acquired company.  Think about how Malcolm Glazer obtained control over Manchester United: a very similar deal.  He “bought” his portion with tons of loans, put those loans on the books of the club, and financed the payments on the backs of the club’s profits.  Spano himself was halfway to a completely leveraged buy-out already, and came pretty close to taking at least the first step towards the next phase.

The team has never come close to returning to its early 1980s glory years; it has just one division crown since 1985.  It hasn’t advanced in the playoffs since 1993, and in the last 15 years had streaks of 8 and 5 straight playoff-less seasons.  Whether that has anything to do with the ownership snafus, bad luck with players, or (more likely) due to difficulties working with Nassau county officials over the years (a fact only alluded to in the film) getting needed stadium upgrades remains arguable.  As for Spano (as detailed in his wiki page), he got out of prison and was soon back for repeated financial fradulent behaviors.

All in all; a great story.  But the documentary left a bit to be desired.

 

Written by Todd Boss

October 30th, 2013 at 10:25 am

Ladson’s Inbox 8/26/13

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ClippardTyler_landing_masn.com

Tyler Clippard has been one of the few bright spots for the 2013 Nats; why isn’t he closing? Photo Masn.

Excellent, I was just thinking that I had nothing to write about and MLB Nats beat reporter Bill Ladson posted a mailbox.  Honestly, if I had a steady stream of people emailing me questions I’d have a field day.  I’d post so much content my hands would melt from carpal tunnel syndrome.  I’d post 8,000 word columsn like what Bill Simmons used to do.  Anyway.

Here’s how I’d have responded to the questions Ladson took.  As always, I write my answer here before reading his and edit questions for clarity/conciseness.

Q: Given the way Dan Haren has pitched since being activated from the disabled list, do you see any chance the Nationals re-signing him?

A: Nope.  Zero.  Zilch.  They’re not going to make another $13M mistake in 2014, not with the way that Taylor Jordan has pitched.  The Nats little splurge last off-season pushed their payroll into unknown territory, and I’ll bet they bring it back (especially since that pocketbook hit brought nothing but a .500 record).  Dan Haren is more likely to get flipped to a pitching starved contender in the next week (unless the Nats stupidly hold out for too many prospects, as seems to be the case) and will be plying his trade elsewhere next season.  Ladson says no as well but then completely hedges his answer, saying that “things could change” and “we should have more information in the off-season.”   Well, can’t that be the answer to every question?  

Q: Why isn’t Tyler Clippard closing? 

A: Because the Nats stupidly gave Rafael Soriano a $30M deal, and he’s a “big name closer” that someone in this team’s executive heirarchy was convinced that we needed.  I don’t think it was Mike Rizzo; this moves smelled like a fan-boy ownership panic move in reaction to Drew Storen‘s NLCS Game 5 meltdown.  The problem with Soriano, as has been well established in his prior stints, is that he’s a whiner, a clubhouse cancer, and a problem child when he’s not used in save situations.  His track record speaks for itself: look at his seasonal performances when he’s a closer versus when he’s not.  He wore out his welcome in Tampa Bay with probably the most easy-going manager in the game Joe Maddon.  We’ve already learned this year he doesn’t work out with his fellow relievers, sits off to himself, isn’t a part of the team.  Great acquisition guys!

We played in the Diamond Dream Foundation golf tournament yesterday and had the opportunity to play alongside former Baltimore Oriole pitcher Dave Johnson, who now does radio work for the Orioles on MASN.  This same topic came up; why isn’t Clippard closing but more importantly; what are the Nats going to do with Tyler Clippard in this coming arbitration hearing?   Johnson said that the save statistic is what the players wanted to be judged on for arbitration hearings, and now they’re slaves to it.  Clippard is having a fantastic season, but isn’t the closer, and he belives that management isn’t going to want to pay him $5-$6M to be a “middle reliever.”  I’m guessing the Nats try to sign Clippard to a 2-year deal this off-season, buying out his arbitration years.

They’ll never do this, but another option for the team is this; trade Clippard to a team looking for a closer, get prospects back, and then his pay becomes commensurate with his role.  But this would significantly weaken the bullpen going into next year needlessly.  Its only money; if the Nats didn’t learn this from last year’s transactions (letting Tom Gorzelanny walk over a couple of million dollars?  Non-tendering John Lannan to save $5m?) then that’s unfortunate.  I’d rather have had a couple of guys getting a ton of money as insurance policies than a $30M closer for a .500 team.

Ladson pointed out curious reliever usage in the last series and postulates that Davey Johnson may have had enough of Soriano himself.  We’ll see if Clippard closes the rest of the way and how Soriano handles it.

Q: Do you think Mike Rizzo would consider hiring Mike Scioscia as the Nationals’ next manager? Looks like his time in Anaheim may be ending.

A: Absolutely.  If the Angels are dumb enough to let Mike Scioscia go, then I agree with Buster Olney and Jayson Stark, who talked about this same issue on the Baseball Tonight Podcast late last week.  They said that if Scioscia is fired, “he’ll have a new job in 0.2 seconds.”   The Angels aren’t losing because of Scioscia; they’re losing because the GM wanted to spend $400M on aging FA bats in Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton while spending about $5 on starting pitching this year.  (I STILL cannot believe the Joe Blanton contract; how does he get a 2yr/$15M contract after the way he pitched in 2012??).  Ladson agrees.

Q: Considering how well Werth has played this year, are we giving up on Span too soon?

A: Possibly.  Or possibly we were just expressing irritation that Denard Span is playing exactly as we feared he would; posting a 91 OPS+ which is nearly identical to his production in 2010 and 2011.   I’m tired of repeating my own opinion on the matter (we didn’t need Span, we could have kept Harper in center, you’re wasting Harper’s defense in left, we could have used Morse’s power, we didn’t need to give up our best starting pitching prospect, defense in LF and 1B is overrated, blah blah blah).   Ladson says that Span has a “friendly contract” and can be dealt.  Sorry; don’t see that.  Rizzo’s way too egotistical to admit a mistake and deal Span now.

Q: Looking to next year, doesn’t Steve Lombardozzi remind you of Chase Utley at second? And what happens with Tyler Moore as either an outfielder or first baseman? Both of these young guys are too good not to get a real chance at starting for the Nats.

A: Steve Lombardozzi as Chase Utley?  Uh; Utley averaged 30 homers in his peak years and has more than 200 for his career.  Lombardozzi has four.  4 homers in his life.  Lombardozzi is a slap hitter, Utley is a middle of the order power hitter.  Other than that, yeah I guess they’re similar.   As for Tyler Moore I guess the questioner either a) hasn’t seen his seasonal numbers or b) has forgotten that the Nats have guys locked up through 2014 at every position that Moore can play.  Unless there’s an injury, the guy is a backup in 2014.  Ladson agrees with me on Lombardozzi.  As for Moore, Ladson seems to think that the Nats might trade LaRoche.  Really??  Who is going to take LaRoche for 2014?  He’s hitting .238 with barely any power for a first baseman.  Who’s taking that contract and giving us anything of value coming back?  Wishful thinking.

Q: Would the Nationals have interest in signing outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who is a free agent after this season?

A: I would think not; Jacoby Ellsbury is going to want too much money, we have no place to play him, and I don’t think he’s worth the money.  He had one great season, a couple of decent ones and otherwise is a below-average offensive outfielder.    I think he’s a lock to stay in Boston.  Ladson notes that Ellsbury is a Scott Boras client so you never know what’ll happen.

Why is Toradol “ok” but Steroids and HGH “bad?”

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Did Papelbon inadvertantly open up a whole new PED angle? Photo Keith Allison via wikipedia/flickr

The latest salvo in the “Questionable Performance Enhancing Drug” storyline in today’s professional baseball landscape was this interesting statement from Jonathan Papelbon last week;  he and other Boston teammates frequently were injected with the drug Toradol by team doctors when they were feeling “run-down” or overly fatigued in order to get a quick pick-me-up for a game.  Apparently Toradol had the effect of giving players a four hour window of feeling “pretty damn good” and it was used by a portion of the Boston clubhouse.  Its also in use in many other clubhouses (though apparently not in Philadelphia, who told Papelbon his Toradol days were over).

Ok, how is Toradol not a Performance Enhancing Drug?  It certainly seems to qualify based on WADA’s “Three Criteria” for PEDs:

  1. The capacity to enhance performance (clearly, as discussed by Papelbon)
  2. Use can result in negative health consequences (absolutely; Jon Lester suffered some of them and had a serious internal bleeding issue, and now Boston is reportedly reviewing its use of the drug)
  3. Violate the spirit of sports. (opinion based .. but after reading what Toradol can do, how can you NOT argue that its use violates the “spirit of sports?”)

(2/15/13 update: The Red Sox trainer who administered all this Toradol apparently “flouted” state laws by doing so, as reported by Passan, who is all over this case.)

By the way, WADA adds a drug to its banned list if it qualifies for TWO of the above three categories (hence the addition of things like “Deer Antler Spray” despite it having no known side effects, since it clearly seems to violate the spirit clause).

This leads me to my larger question: Why is Toradol, and as a side effect Steriods and HGH “bad” but the use of Cortisone, Toradol considered “ok” in terms of usage?   What do Cortisone shots do?  They enable a player to play through pain that otherwise may keep him out.  Uh … isn’t that the definition of a “performance enhancing” substance??   Our own Ryan Zimmerman clearly benefitted from cortisone shots in 2012; his before/after splits are pretty distinct and obvious.   Cortisone itself also fits the 3 WADA principles; it enhances performance, it has side-effects that many doctors are quite worried about, and I’m sure some would agree it changes the “spirit of the game” in some ways.

If your answer involves something along the lines of “PEDs are banned because they’re illegal” then I’ll counter with this: Steroid’s aren’t illegal; they’re just controlled.  But so is Cortisone; you can’t just inject yourself with the stuff without a doctor’s order.  And so is Toradol; you can’t go into your local supermarket and buy injectable Toradol.   And so is HGH: ask yourself why most elderly persons keep bottles of the stuff on their bed-side table?  Even something like a B-12 shot raises some issues; lots of players get B-12 shots and swear by the natural effect it has, but as with Toradol I’m pretty sure you can’t just get injectable B-12 and administer it yourself.  Even though B-12 is naturally occuring, in order to naturally consume the amounts of B-12 being injected you’d likely have to eat a bushel of clams (or some other high B-12 food) every day.

Honestly I may have the biggest issue with the classification of HGH as a PED, when you think about what HGH is (a naturally occuring growth hormone that is generates solely to help the body heal itself after an injury or illness) and then think about what Cortisone accomplishes for athletes.  So its “ok” to take a Cortisone shot that treats inflammation from an injury/strain so that you can go out and play better … but its NOT ok to take a naturally occuring suppliment to help with the same issue??  The only reason adults don’t heal as fast as kids is precisely because our natural HGH generation slows as we age … and doctors prescribe HGH to help the elderly heal from illnesses and injuries all the time.  Isn’t this inconsistent?

And all the above just talks about various medications.  Lets talk about the in-vogue plasma-replacement treatments that Kobe Bryant popularized and which have now been done by others, including Alex Rodriguez and Bartolo Colon. In this op-ed piece from Jeff Passan from Dec 2011, he discusses the blurry line between PEDs and legitimate surgical procedures.  The article has a very in-depth description of the A-Rod procedure and raises the question as to what defines a Performance Enhancing Drug?   If blood doping is illegal, how is a procedure that filters out platelets and re-injects them to targeted spots legal?  Colon was out of the game in 2010, got the procedure and suddenly is a 116 ERA+ pitcher in 2013; isn’t this concerning?

Passan takes things one step further, comparing the healing effects of HGH with these new treatments that A-Rod and Colon got and makes a very good point; these new-fangled surgical procedures absolutely qualify for WADA’s 3 criteria.  Passan has also asked the same questions I’m asking in a June 2006 article that started about HGH but ended with this same general question.  And he makes very good points about cortisone, HGH, Testosterone and even Tylenol usage.  Its worth a read.

Here’s another question: why is it “ok” to have performance-enhancing surgical procedures (Lasik surgery, Tommy John surgery, or any manner of surgery involving transplanted ligaments or tendons) but it is NOT ok to use drugs that have the same general effect?   If I can take a pill that gives me 20-10 vision, which enables me to see the baseball better and become a better hitter, would that be considered a PED?  I’m pretty sure … but yet people go get laser surgery and can get their eyes fixed to this level of quality any day of the week.  Perhaps this is a ridiculous example but my point stands; whether or not your performance is enhanced by virtue of a bottle or by the knife, aren’t these valid questions?  We’re starting to hear of psychotic parents of teen-aged pitchers actually getting “preventative” Tommy John surgery done, knowing that most pitchers who have the surgery see improvement in certain aspects of their game (since the Ulnar Ligament connector is actually strengthened in this surgery over how it grows naturally).  Is this … ethical?

And then there’s this interesting point, which was proposed on a BS Report podcast done between Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman last week.  If HGH is considered a PED, and HGH’s sole purpose in life is to help people get better after being sick … then why aren’t classes of anti-biotics such as Amoxicillin also considered PEDs?  What is the difference?   Klosterman then made the additional (scary) point that PED usage and testing may all be for naught eventually; Genetic testing and DNA manipulation may get to the point where there can BE no test to find out whether someone’s been genetically manipulated in order to be a superior athlete.  Testing has been trailing the science for years in professional sports … it may eventually be rendered completely moot.  Of course, taken the the ridiculous extreme, do we really want a slew of genetically engineered super-athletes competing for our enjoyment?  Why not just invent a bunch of robots to play these games?

Food for thought.  I know we’ve discussed some of these topics here before but do you worry about the inconsistencies in professional sports PED policies?  I’m not sure I have an easy solution, but I will say that the classifications of drugs seems arbitrary in some cases.

Ewing theory and the Strasburg Shutdown

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How much will Strasburg's shutdown really affect the team? Photo allansgraphics.com

Here we are, September 1st, and every single columnist and blogger who covers baseball has, by law, added their 2 cents to the Stephen Strasburg shutdown debate. And as the imminent shutdown date approaches (I had predicted 9/12 being his last start either in a post or the comments section, and that date still seems to hold; 9/12 gives him 3 more starts, which seems to match what we’ve been hearing lately out of Davey Johnson and the front office), I’m honestly not looking forward to the coming blitz of additional opinions from the blogosphere talking about what idiots the Nationals are, blah blah.

My succinct opinion on the shutdown can be expressed in this metaphor; if you had open heart surgery, and your cardiologist says to you, “take it easy next season and only pitch 160 innings,” wouldn’t you follow his advice?   Both the doctor who performed Strasburg’s surgery (Lewis Yocum) and the famed James Andrews (together essentially the two leading experts on the injury and the surgery) have come out in support of the National’s conservative plan.  To every other pundit out there who says something like, “there’s no proof that shutting him down will protect him in the long run,” I’ll say this: I trust the guy with the M.D. behind his name over the internet dork sitting in his mom’s basement who thinks he knows better.

Even my wife has added her 2 cents; while watching Saturday’s game (a pretty amazing back and forth offensive outburst ending with St. Louis scraping a run against Drew Storen to take it 10-9), one of the telecasters added his opinion on the matter and my wife asked me why the Nats didn’t just “let him pitch less” earlier on in the season.  A common theme for Strasburg shutdown critics; to which I say this: if you think the whole shutdown thing isn’t playing will with the Veterans in the Nationals clubhouse, exactly how do you think it would have played out if the entire pitching rotation was manipulated all season on account of one guy?  Baseball is a team game; you have 25 guys out there who contribute to each win, and I’m pretty sure the veterans on this team wouldn’t have taken well to having their routines thrown off in an effort to squeeze 5 more starts out of a 24 yr old (no matter how promising he may be).

But I digress slightly from the point of this post.  I’m of the opinion that we may see an interesting phenomenon occur when Strasburg gets shutdown for the season.  We may see a theory that Bill Simmons has come to popularize called “The Ewing Theory.”  In essence, the theory says that teams with stars who receive an inordinate amount of media attention often perform better once that star has either left the team or gone down with injury.  Teams rally around each other after their star player either leaves or goes down with injury partly because of the “relief” they get from media questions, partly to show that they can win without the big name, and partly (in some cases) because the star player was “holding the team back” by virtue of his presence (this happens more in sports like Basketball, where one player can really command an entire team’s attention; less so in Football or Baseball).  It is named after Patrick Ewing because his 1998-99 New York Knicks ended up in the finals despite Ewing going down with injury.  The phenomena has repeated itself in a number of notable ways over the years; off the top of my head these situations fit the theory:

  • UVA basketball went as far in the NCAA tournament without Ralph Sampson in 1984 than they ever did with him.
  • The NY Giants won the super bowl the year AFTER Tiki Barber retired.
  • The Seattle Mariners won 116 games the year after Alex Rodriguez left as a free agent.
  • The Tennessee Volunteers won the National title the year AFTER Peyton Manning graduated.

I think this team may exhibit a bit of inadvertent Ewing Theory once Strasburg sits.  You have to think the players are tired of being asked about it; who’s to say they won’t just keep on rolling and play even better once Strasburg gets shutdown and the issue is done?  Plus, here’s some corroborating evidence that may help out;

1. After September 12th, the Nats will only miss three Strasburg starts.  The difference between Strasburg starting those three games and John Lannan is likely to be nearly negligible.  Strasburg’s Wins above Replacement (bWAR) figure for the season is 2.6 right now through 26 starts.  That’s .1 WAR per start that Strasburg gives the team over a replacement player.  And Lannan isn’t exactly a replacement-level pitcher; he owns a sub 4.00 ERA and a 103 ERA+ for his career.  Lannan’s WAR for his two spot starts this year?  Exactly .2, or the same .1 WAR contributed per game as Strasburg.

2. Lannan is the quintessential guy pitching for a contract, and in all likelihood will use these three spot starts to showcase himself for his eventual new team in 2013.  It isn’t that Lannan isn’t a good pitcher, its just that he isn’t the type of guy Mike Rizzo likes to have in his rotation (i.e., power arms with high k/9 rates).   So I’d bet dollars to donuts that Lannan pitches three quality games in mid-to-late September, then gets left off the post-season roster and eventually gets non-tendered at the arbitration offer deadline.

3. Of the 6 series that the Nats play between September 12th and the end of the season, at least 3 will be against teams with no playoff implications (home-and-home versus Philadelphia plus a 4-game home series against Milwaukee).  The Nats are also at St. Louis in the second to last series, by which time the Cardinals may very well be completely out of the Wild Card race.  If the end of 2011 showed us anything, its that teams out of playoff contention in September have a tendency to play really, really weak lineups of prospects and September 1 call-ups.  Look at some of the lineups that the Nats faced in September of last year (especially some of the New York line-ups): they were literally two regulars and 7 AAA guys.  There’s no reason to think that the Nats won’t improve on the .655 winning percentage they’ve had for the last two months despite not having Strasburg in the rotation.

But, the critic may say, wouldn’t you rather have Strasburg pitching Game 1 of your divisional series?  Well, yes of course.  In arguably putting out a playoff rotation of Strasburg-Gonzalez-Zimmermann-Jackson is better than Gonzalez-Zimmermann-Jackson-Detwiler.  But, our playoff rotation is still pretty darn good.  Using the probable playoff teams as of this writing, here’s how our playoff rotation would rank with other NL playoff teams (the ranking is league rank in ERA)

  • Washington: Gonzalez (12), Zimmermann (8), Jackson (17), Detwiler (13).  Strasburg, btw, is 10th.
  • Cincinnati: Cueto (1), Latos (27), Arroyo (29), Bailey (37).  Leake, their #5 starter, is 43rd.
  • San Francisco: Cain (4), Vogelsong (9), Bumgarner (11), Zito (42).  Except there’s no way they’d go with Zito in a playoff series, so you’d be seeing Lincecum, amazingly ranked 50th of 51 qualifying NL starters in ERA this year.
  • Atlanta: Maholm (14), Hudson (25), Minor (46).  Their likely 4th starter would be Medlen, who in 6 starts has a 1.71ERA.
  • St. Louis: Lohse (3), Wainwright (32), Westbrook (33).  Their likely 4th starter would be Garcia over Lynn, but Garcia’s era would rank him 45th or so if he qualified.

San Francisco’s rotation looks pretty tough.  Until you remember that the Nats swept them at home and just beat them 2 of 3 on the road for a 5-1 season split.  In fact, of probable playoff teams here’s the Nats current season records:

  • Cincinnati: 5-2.  We beat them 3 of 4 in April, then took 2 of 3 in Cincinnati in May.
  • San Francisco: 5-1.  Swept at home, took 2 of 3 on the road.
  • Atlanta: 10-5 at current, with 3 critical games in Atlanta in mid September.
  • St. Louis: 3-1 in the series just concluded, with a 3 game set in St. Louis in late September.

Wow.  I didn’t even realize just how well the Nats have played against the league’s best until I looked it up.  This has to give any Nats fan some serious confidence heading into a playoff series, no matter who we may end up playing.

Here’s hoping the Strasburg shutdown doesn’t affect the team as much as pundits seem to believe.

30 for 30 is coming back

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ESPN and Grantland announced today the 2nd installment of the fantastic 30-for-30 series.

I thought the network made a huge mistake by not keeping the 30-for-30 brand name when it released a slew of follow-on productions after the initial run of 30 ended.  Instead they branded them as “ESPN Films presents…” stories and made it nearly impossible for the DVR-age of TV viewers to find them.  Most of us depend on setting a “Record Series” job keyed on the name … but then they presented the follow-on films just using their titles.  To make matters worse ESPN kept changing the air times and the order, didn’t keep a regular weekly schedule of releases, and as a result the viewer numbers were down for the follow on shows.  I still havn’t seen half of the 2nd set, which is unfortunate because there’s some great stories presented.

I did a review of the first batch of 30-for-30s and tried to post thoughts on some of the follow-on shows when I happened to catch them (reviews for the Bartman episode, Dotted-Line, and The Real Rocky) but ran out of gas on the reviews when it became too difficult to get them recorded.

Either way, can’t wait to see the next installments.

Written by Todd Boss

May 16th, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Posted in 30 for 30,Non-Baseball

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Off Topic: ranking the ESPN 30 for 30 series

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Photo courtesy of ESPN Films, the producers of the series.

For me, the ESPN “30 for 30″ series was one of the best creations of TV over the past few years.  The documentary approach to sports journalism has been refreshing and (in most cases) great TV.  When sports programming can keep even a passing sports fan (my finacee) interested and asking for more, you know its been done well.

I listen to almost exclusively podcasts in the car these days, and one of my favorites is the “Firewall and Iceberg” podcast recorded by the lead TV reviewers Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg from www.hitfix.com.  I first learned of reviewer Alan Sepinwall by his appearances on Bill Simmons‘ podcasts (which are first in line to listen to when they get released) and really enjoy his reviews online and their podcasts.

I happened to be perusing the hitfix.com site lately (I was looking for the name of a show they were extolling on the latest podcast) when I came across this link: Dan Fienberg’s rankings of the 30 “30-for-30″ shows.  While I did appreciate most of his comments, I didn’t necessarily agree with the rankings he came up with for the programs.  Since i’ve seen every one of the series, I thought i’d go ahead and do my own rankings.

Disappointing or Unwatchable

  • “Marion Jones: Press Pause”   As most critics have noted, this essentially turned into a glorification of Marion Jones and never once delved into her steroids usage, why she did it, or touch on any of the real issues involved with her.
  • “Without Bias” – It essentially was a step-by-step review of the story of the player without adding much analysis to the story.
  • “Straight Outta LA” – Unwatchable, I turned it off halfway through.  Ice-T‘s not much of a filmmaker.
  • “One Night in Vegas” – Another really weird documentary, especially with the gangsta-poem readings at the beginning and end of the show.  I find it really difficult to glorify the death of a rap star who essentially talked his way into being a target.
  • “Silly Little Game” – Re-enactment of the first group of people to play fantasy baseball; it sounds as interesting as watching the first accountants come up with regulatory principles in a room together.
  • “The House of Steinbrenner” – This wasn’t so much a documentary as it was a glorification of a franchise that has used its superior financial might for the entire century.  Poor Yankees fans; your stadium has been replaced with a Billion dollar monstrosity that has $4,000/game seats and is guaranteed to skew the revenue system in baseball for another 50 years.  Awesome.

Watchable but could have been done better

  • “The Birth of Big Air” – Matt Hoffman certainly is an interesting character but I don’t really consider extreme sports of any kind to be “real” sports.  Yes they’re difficult feats of athletic prowness … but so is ballet dancing.  Yes, i’m difficult to watch most olympic sports with :-)
  • “The U” – Too long, and gets bogged down in the year-to-year machinations of the program.
  • “Unmatched” – Such an uncomfortable documentary; I came away from watching it with the interesting storyline that Evert and Navratilova were such friends … but the tone of the story and music choices had me essentially waiting for the lesbian coupling that seemed to be so pushed by the filmmakers.  Ugh.
  • “Little Big Men” – Good story, but there’s been so many American little league winners, as well as the dilution of the field, that this story loses its impact.
  • “Guru of Go” – Perhaps combining both the story of Hank Gathers’ death AND the basketball system of Paul Westphal confused the story.
  • “The Legend of Jimmy the Greek” – one of the very first ones shown and certainly an interesting story, but the re-enactment voice over ruins the story.
  • “June 17, 1994″ – Brings bad some strange memories.  I loved the never-before-seen footage of sportscasters but I thought the story could have done with actual images and story telling.
  • “Run Ricky Run” – Another weird documentary.  Hard to feel remorse for a drug using athlete though.
  • “Muhammad and Larry” – This was perhaps the most depressing of the series.  Ali was so brain damaged by the time he took this fight, it seems almost criminal now that he was allowed to fight.  The story drags though, using weird fillers for most of the time and not really showing the fight itself.

Interesting watches

  • “The 16th Man” – Good, but so was Invictus.
  • “Jordan Rides the Bus” – I love Ron Shelton‘s work but you cannot help but wonder how good this would have been with actual participation from Michael Jordan.  You come away from the story with the thought that Jordan actually had talent and that he worked at his baseball craft.
  • “The Pony Excess” – Lots of interviews, great detail.  Probably a bit too long though.
  • “Tim Richmond: To the Limit” – I thought it was really interesting that NASCAR turned out to be so introspective about the clear mis-treatment of one of its own … all in the name of fear over his illness.  Read his wikipedia page for some really interesting notes about his essentially be framed for his positive drug test.  I cannot imagine this news breaking in Nascar or any other major sport today.

Good to Very Good

  • “Fernando Nation” – If you don’t remember just how amazingly dominant Fernando Valenzuela was when he came to MLB, check out his baseball-reference page.  In his rookie season he threw EIGHT shutouts, and started the season 8-0 with 8 complete games, and only gave up FOUR earned runs in his first 8 starts.  That’s a heck of a start to the season.  The story telling related to the treatment of the Mexican-American community in Los Angeles was also interesting to learn about.
  • “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson” – Another that really could have used involvement of the principal character of the story.  Nonetheless, the substories related to the high school rivalries and politics of the Tidewater area were fascinating, if not necessarily substantiated.  Having lived in Virginia at the time, the amazing part of the Iverson story was that he was named both the Football and the Basketball player of the year in the state … as a Junior.  He undoubtedly would have done the same as a senior.
  • “King’s Ransom” – Interesting story telling from a great director in Peter Berg.  The involvement and discussions with Gretzky on the golf range really gave this story its life.  Unlike the story of LeBron James moving cities and destroying a franchise, Gretzky’s departure clearly altered the direction of the Edmonton Oilers for the long run.
  • “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” – Some criticized this documentary, but just for the interview with the incredibly egotistical Donald Trump make this for me.
  • “Into the Wind” – Such a moving story. Steve Nash‘s involvement was really special in telling this inspirational Canadian pride story.

The Best of the Series

  • “Four Days in October” – A great documentary if only for the fantastic interviews with Pedro Martinez.  I found the footage of the Red Sox players facing a 3-0 deficit fascinating, and the drama of the games in retrospect makes the Boston comeback even more amazing.  Update: After several re-watches, I moved this up in my rankings.
  • “The Band that Wouldn’t Die” – Most say this is the best of the series.  I feel they’re getting starry-eyed by the director (Barry Levinson) versus the actual story.  But this obscure story is a highlight of the series and is a great example of the richness of American sport as a subject matter.
  • “Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks” – One of the absolute best stories.  The interviews with Reggie Miller and Spike Lee make this one of the best of the series.
  • “The Best That Never Was” – My father immediately recalled who Marcus Dupree was, and this story was an interesting tale.  My biggest takeaway was the 100% positiveness of Dupree, even today.  He’s not angry or sad about what his life has become (he’s a truck driver in rural Mississippi).  On the contrary, he’s grateful for everything he had and all the opportunities he got.
  • “The Two Escobars” – the footage, interviews and story told here was fantastic.  I only wish it was not 100% subtitled.
  • “Once Brothers” – Another great story, told through the eyes of the very human Vlade Divac.  It could have used a bit more subtext into the politics behind the split of Yugoslavia for those of us who get lost in the mid 80s politics.

If I had to give a best and worst, I’d probably go with “The Two Escobars” for best and “Marion Jones” as the worst.  I can’t wait to see the stories they have in the pipeline.  Steve Bartman should make for a great story to tell.  The great news is that the series will continue and some of the original ideas proposed will be explored.  Again referring to a Bill Simmons podcast, here’s some of the original series ideas kicked around that may still be turned into documentaries:

  • 86 masters
  • 89 ws earthquake
  • Tysons-robin givens Relationship
  • doc and darrell
  • title 9
  • dream Team
  • fab five
  • wwf/ andre the giant (couldn’t be done b/c Vince McMahon owns all the film)
  • 94 rangers
  • kerri suggs
  • scott norwood/scapegoats (delayed b/c of the Bartman film)
  • racism in sports
  • franchise relocation (pushed off b/c of the Levinson Baltimore Colts band story)
  • pete rose

Here’s to a great series and many more great documentaries.

5/11/11 Update: ESPN’s 30-for-30 site now allows you to rank the series yourself, which I did and ranked them as such:

1.Two Escobars
2.Band/Wouldn’t Die
3.Reggie Miller
4.Marcus Dupree
5.Four Days Oct.
6.Once Brothers
7.No Crossover
8.Who Killed USFL?
9.Fernando Nation
10.King’s Ransom
11.Into The Wind
12.Jordan Rides/Bus
13.Pony Excess
14.Tim Richmond
15.The 16th Man
16.Muhammad / Larry
17.Unmatched
18.Birth of Big Air
19.Little Big Men
20.Jimmy The Greek
21.The U
22.Guru of Go
23.June 17, 1994
24.Run Ricky Run
25.Without Bias
26.Steinbrenner
27.Silly Little Game
28.Straight Outta L.A.
29.One Night/Vegas
30.Marion Jones

After submitting my rankings, I could see how the rest of ESPN nation had these ranked and was rather surprised.  As of 5/11/11, here’s the rankings overall:

1 The U
2 Pony Excess
3 Marcus Dupree
4 Reggie Miller
5 Run Ricky Run
6 Two Escobars
7 Without Bias
8 June 17, 1994
9 Once Brothers
10 No Crossover
11 Muhammad / Larry
12 Jordan Rides/Bus
13 One Night/Vegas
14 Four Days Oct.
15 Who Killed USFL?
16 Straight Outta L.A.
17 King’s Ransom
18 Guru of Go
19 Jimmy The Greek
20 Steinbrenner
21 Band/Wouldn’t Die
22 Into The Wind
23 Silly Little Game
24 The 16th Man
25 Fernando Nation
26 Little Big Men
27 Birth of Big Air
28 Unmatched
29 Tim Richmond
30 Marion Jones

“The U,” which I thought was only mediocre, led by a fairly large margin over #2.  My #1 film “The Two escobars” was in the top 10, but was 3rd in overall #1 votes.

“Marion Jones: Press Pause”
“Without Bias”
“Straight Outta LA”
“One Night in Vegas”
“Silly Little Game”

Watchable but could have been done better
“The Birth of Big Air”
“The U”
“Unmatched”
“Little Big Men”
“Tim Richmond: To the Limit”
“Guru of Go”
“The Legend of Jimmy the Greek”
“The House of Steinbrenner”
“June 17, 1994″
“Run Ricky Run”

Run of the Mill
“The 16th Man”
“Muhammad and Larry”
“Jordan Rides the Bus”
“Four Days in October”
“Fernando Nation”
“The Pony Excess”

Good
“No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson”
“Once Brothers”
“King’s Ransom”
“Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?”

Great
“The Band that Wouldn’t Die”
“Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks”
“Into the Wind”
“The Best That Never Was”
“The Two Escobars”