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Movie Review: 42

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Robinson's most iconic moment; stealing home in the 1955 World Series.

Robinson’s most iconic moment; stealing home in the 1955 World Series.

So, one thing we’ve noticed about having a kid is how our television and movie watching habits have changed.  Here’s a summary:

1. We never go out to movies anymore.

2. We watch about 30 minutes of something between the time we get him down at night and the time we have to go to bed and collapse from exhaustion.

3. If we do rent a movie …  it is something that came out months ago and is either on HBO or on-demand for $5 bucks.  We watch it in 30 minute increments around his sleep schedule.

So, given the above parameters, we just finished watching the movie 42, which chronicles Jackie Robinson‘s breaking of the color barrier in Baseball in the mid 1940s.   Some Links about the topic: IMDB’s movie page, Jackie Robinson’s Wikipedia page and Robinson’s Baseball-Reference page.

Here’s what I thought.

Story and Acting: My wife enjoyed the movie moreso than I did; perhaps it is because of the “love interest” storyline between Jackie and his wife, or perhaps it is because she doesn’t know the whole story of Robinson.  I knew, for example, that Robinson won the Rookie of the Year award in his debut season and a subsequent MVP award, so someone who doesn’t know Robinson’s history would watch the latter half of the movie regarding his MLB debut and maintain some suspense as to how he performed.  The various players just sort of allude to Robinson’s talent level here or there; never letting on just how good of a player he is.

Robinson’s relationship with his wife is a large feature on the movie.  I have no idea how pertinent this is to the man and this story, having not yet read one of the many Jackie Robinson books out there (the most frequently mentioned being Baseball’s Greatest Experiment by Jules Tygiel and Opening Day by Jonathan Eig, not to mention the fact that Robinson seems to have penned at least 4 autobiographies).  But enough emphasis is given that at one point my wife asked, “He doesn’t frigging cheat on her, does he?”  Perhaps a statement on our low expectations of professional athletes in the modern world, thanks to the travails of stars like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.

Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey might be the best acting job I’ve ever seen him perform outside of Witness or The Fugitive.  I thought Ford was washed up as an actor, but he played a compelling, complex Rickey character who at times was using Robinson’s debut both as a money-grabbing ploy and a morality play.  The two relatively unknown actors playing Jackie and Rachel Robinson were fantastic, all things considered.  Chadwick Boseman and Nicole Beharie both gave excellent performances.

The story itself, as tends to happen, left out some details.  It had to, in order to fit into a 2 hour time period.  I wish they would have spent more time discussing Robinson’s college and military background; he was an absolutely fantastic all-around athlete, winning varsity letters at UCLA in FOUR different sports.  Instead the movie seemed to imply that Robinson had been kicked out of the military (which did not occur) and barely mentioned his background prior to his being plucked out of the Negro Leagues in Birmingham.  Fair enough; Robinson’s legacy had to do with baseball, not his collegiate football accomplishments.

Baseball Sequences: Unlike some baseball movies we’ve seen, at least the pitchers looked like they could pitch in this movie.  Boseman’s ability to look natural at the plate was nearly convincing; per his biography he’s an athlete who still plays basketball.  As it turned out though, they didn’t really have to show a ton of baseball footage despite this film’s title subject; most of this story was to bring to the screen the oppressive and unbelievable racism prevalent in the mid 1940s and to subsequently show how the Robinsons faced it.  Nowhere was this more prevalent or obvious than in the first Brooklyn-Philadelphia game, where the opposing manager (Ben Chapman) stood on the field and hurled insult after insult at Robinson in what seemed like pure racism, but was later explained away as “gamesmanship” by the coach.

Unfortunately, the best baseball sequences didn’t appear until the credits started to roll, where what looked like B-film capturing the players making diving stops in the field appear in slow motion.  Perhaps it is fitting that the baseball action is limited; this isn’t really a “baseball story” like The Natural or Major League is; it does not depend on believable baseball action to make its point.  Robinson could walk and triumphantly trot to first base and it can appear as a monumental moral statement.

Some clarifications on the legacy of early black players: the movie implies that the Dodgers were considering Robinson, Roy Campanella and Satchel Paige to be the first player to integrate.  What’s left unsaid is that the real “star” of the Negro Leagues at the time was Josh Gibson.  Also interesting to me was the fact that a second black player named Johnny Wright was signed in early 1946 and played in the minors the same season that Robinson debued.  I didn’t necessarily know this, but Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the American League just a couple months after Robinson did, to very little fan fare (see this list on Wikipedia of the earliest black players by date and team).  I only mention this because the film post-credits say that (paraphrased) Robinson paved the way for black athletes like Campanella and Don Newcombe.  That’s true: Campanella and Newcombe were the next two black players to play for Brooklyn, but not in the major leagues.

Conclusion: Decent movie.   Probably will never watch it again.  I may be in the minority though; the film grossed nearly $100M and now stands as the 2nd highest grossing baseball film ever made.   I’m not sure i’ve got it in my top 10 baseball movies of all time, but it may slide into contention for best baseball-related drama.  I’ll keep it in mind the next time I update my Baseball Movie post.

What did you guys think?

 

Starting Pitching Quality in the WBC

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I keep a little file, periodically updated, that keeps track of “Ace Starters” in the league.  There’s usually right around 20 of them at any one time.  There’s no hard and fast rule as to what defines an Ace; not every team has an Ace.  Some teams have more than one Ace.  Its essentially defined as a guy who, every time he goes to the hill, he is expected to win, a perennial Cy Young candidate, a guy who is acknowledged as being one of the best in the game.

Here’s my list of “Aces” in this league, right now; Strasburg, Gonzalez, Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Cueto, Wainwright, Lincecum, Cain, Kershaw, Greinke, Lester, Price, Sabathia, Dickey, Johnson, Verlander, Hernandez, Darvish and Weaver.    Twenty guys, some arguable with poor 2012 performances (Lester, Lincecum, Johnson, Halladay), some arguable for possibly being one-year wonders (Dickey, Greinke, Gonzalez), but by and large a quick list of the 20 best starters in the league.

How many of these Aces are pitching in the 2013 WBC?  TWO.  That’s it.  Gio Gonzalez and R.A. Dickey are starting for the US.  Not one other US Ace is taking the hill for their country.  The few foreign guys (Hernandez, Cueto and Darvish) aren’t pitching for their teams either for various reasons.

If you asked me to give you the 4 best US starters, right now, the four starters I’d throw in a World Baseball Classic to best represent this country, I’d probably go (in nearly this order) Verlander, Kershaw, Strasburg and maybe Cole Hamels.   If you asked me the NEXT four guys i’d want on the bump i’d probably go Sabathia, Cain, Price and Lee.   After that?  I’d probably still take the likes of Halladay and Greinke before I got to Gonzalez or Dickey.   And that’s only because of the poor 2012 showings by Lincecum, Lester and Johnson; if this was 2011, those three guys are absolutely in the mix for best arms in the league.  So by rough estimates, we have perhaps the 14th and 15th best American starters going for us right now.

Who else does the US team have starting?   Ryan Vogelsong and Derek Holland.  Vogelsong is the 4th best starter ON HIS OWN TEAM, and Holland isn’t much further up on the Texas depth chart.

I’m enjoying the WBC, don’t get me wrong, but you can repeat this exercise for a number of the positional players on this roster too.   Look at the post-season voting last year and look at who is playing on these teams.  No Buster Posey, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Josh Hamilton or Prince Fielder.  There is only one player who got an NL Cy Young vote in 2012 participating (Fernando Rodney for the D.R.).  I think this event needs its best players to play, and I think the league needs to come up with a way of making that happen.  No more injury dispensations, no more excuses for not having the best, most marketable guys out there.

Why in the hell aren’t Trout and Harper playing for the team USA??   This is the best duo of young, marketable players to this this league since the 1998 home run derby.  They’re on the cover of Men’s Health Magazine and Sports Illustrated in the last month.   You use what you have and market the league on the backs of players like this.  Look at the NBA; they market on top of their most recognizable names and they have grown because of it, from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James.  Why MLB can’t seem to see the forest for the trees sometimes is just frustrating.  The WBC is growing in popularity; its ratings in Japan eclipsed the TV ratings for the Olympics in that country, and the US games reportedly have gotten the highest ratings for a non-playoff game in TV history).  Team USA needs to catch on.

Washington is a “Football” town; what’s yours?

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(Editor’s Note: I first started writing this post in May of 2011, came back to it in August of 2012.  Suddenly in Feb of 2013 this whole post got “scooped” by Craig Calcaterra on HardballTalk.   Don’t you hate it when a post you’ve had in draft mode forever is essentially duplicated while you sit on it?   At least it gave me some reason to finish it and finally publish it).

In early 2011, After watching a re-run of “Four Days in October” of the fantastic 30-for-30 series I got to thinking about the “leading” sports obsession, per city, around the country.  There were numerous shots of the town of Boston, its fans, the bars, etc, and one clearly got the impression that Boston is a “Baseball town.”  This got me thinking: what is the Leading Sport in every pro town in America?

(coincidentally,  if you’re also a fan of the 30-for-30 series, I posted a review and ranking of all 30 original episodes in December 2010.  ESPN’s 30 for 30 site also has a ranking page where, after you vote, you can see the results.  I put in my own rankings on the Dec 2010 post, which I may re-publish at some point).

Here in Washington, clearly we are a Football town.  The Redskins are king; every local sports radio show dedicates large portions of its programming to the Redskins in season or out, because that’s what draws.  The other pro teams in town are of only passing interest to casual fans, are mostly followed by die-hards (like me and the Nationals of course), but if they have a run of success (as with the Capitals now and the Nationals in the first half of 2005 or in 2012) then suddenly they’re popular.  But Football will always be king here.  Some local sportswriters have mentioned the Jayson Werth walk-off in game 4 of last year’s NLDS as the moment that “Washington became a baseball town,” but I just don’t see it.

How about the other major sports towns in America?  I took every town that has 2 or more pro franchises (since obviously, if you live in Jacksonville with only one major franchise, the answer is usually pretty clear) and put my thoughts down.  Feel free to debate, criticize, or tell me I don’t know what i’m talking about.  The towns are listed by category, in descending market size.

Four (or more) Sports towns

1. New York: Baseball.  Despite having so many sports choices, I think the history and continued dominance of the Yankees makes NYC primarily a baseball town.  That’s not to say that a city of 8 million people doesn’t support its football, basketball or hockey teams, but none of the other NY-based franchises have consistently been as good or in the news as much as the Yankees.

2. Los Angeles: Basketball.  As with the Yankees of New York, the Lakers status as one of the marquee franchises (if not THE marquee franchise) of the NBA makes this a basketball town first and foremost.  The Dodgers have 50+ years of history in the town, but the Lakers rule.  Note; of all its major city counterparts, Los Angeles is also the closest to a “college town” that you’ll see.  USC and UCLA both have major sports programs, the area hosts the Rose Bowl every year, and other lesser sports schools such as Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, and Long Beach State all have had their moments in various college sports.

3. Chicago: Baseball (but open for debate).  The Baseball history is obvious, with both teams having 100+ years of history and the Cubs being one of the marquee franchises in the sport.  The Bulls clearly made the town a Basketball town for a sustained period of time, but I don’t get the impression they’ve supplanted the Cubs.  The Blackhawks are an Original Six hockey team, and the Chicago Bears have been around since the beginning of organized professional football (In fact, they won the first NFL championship in 1933).  So there’s a ton of sports history in this town.  But do the other sports supplant the baseball culture?

4. Philadelphia: Football.  The Phillies have re-made themselves into a dominant force in Baseball over the past few years (2012 notwithstanding), but nothing stokes the fire of Pennsylvanians as much as the E-A-G-L-E-S.

5. Dallas/Fort Worth: Football.  Can’t get much more important to a town’s psyche than the Cowboys.  Even if the Mavericks win a title and the Rangers make the World Series.

6. Miami: Football by attrition.  The South Florida populace is so irritated with Jeffrey Loria that they’ll probably never be baseball diehards.  The Heat?  LeBron is johnny-come-lately.  Hockey?  In a town where it never gets below 60?  Can’t see it.  In fact, Miami may really be the most apathetic sports town out there.  The rise of the U of Miami football team helped, but that fad has passed and Miami football barely draws any more.  I don’t think you’d really say that the town is crazy over its Dolphins, but is it crazy about any of its teams?

7. Washington: Football.  The Redskins rule (as discussed above), and the other teams are only of passing interest if they’re winning (which, in the Wizards case, hasn’t happened since the late 70s).

8. Detroit: Hockey.  The Red Wings are an institution, and they don’t call Detroit “Hockey Town, USA” for nothing.  The Tigers were a laughingstock for years, the Pistons had a slight run of glory under Isaiah Thomas, and the Lions are in the midst of a horrible period.  Even with Detroit’s run of glory in the past decade, the Red Wings keep on rolling.

9. Boston: Baseball. The hold the Red Sox have on the psyche of New Englanders in general is legendary.  Boston’s other teams have had sustained runs of greatness lately, and of course the Celtics rival the Lakers in terms of legendary franchises.  But if you have to pick one team I still think its the Red Sox.

10. Atlanta: Football, I think.  The Braves made the playoffs 15 straight years but the team couldn’t sell out its playoff games.  I don’t think the town really cares about its hockey or basketball teams that much (in fact, the Hockey team moved to Winnipeg).  How about the Falcons?  Does the rise and fall of the Falcons drive sports talk in Atlanta?  Perhaps the presence of Georgia Tech and SEC football makes the town more apathetic about its Pro teams.

11. Phoenix: Debatable as well.  I’d guess Basketball as being the longest tenured professional team in Arizona.  But, a number of teams now have spring training in Arizona and the Diamondbacks have a relatively recent World Series victory.  The Arizona football team may have made a run to the 2009 Super Bowl but Arizona didn’t even have a football team for a number of years with the Rams relocation.

12. Minneapolis: Has to be Football.  The Twins are contenders now but it wasn’t too long ago that the team was in supposed danger of contraction (thanks to their penny-pinching billionaire owner Jim Pohlad and his father).  The basketball team is a punchline in the league.  One of the few major northern/cold weather cities would be a natural for Hockey, but the North Stars left town and I had to look up the current pro hockey team’s franchise name.  The Vikings current stadium is in dis-repair, and there’s rumors that the team may move from the area (perhaps to Los Angeles to continue a trend the Lakers started in 1960).  There’s a voter backlash against paying for billion dollar properties that serve only to further enrich billionaire NFL owners, so the natural move for the Vikings may be to move out of town.  Which is a shame for football diehards in the Twin Cities area.

13. Denver: Football.  They only got baseball and hockey within the past 20 years, and i’m pretty sure the Nuggets don’t outweigh the successful Broncos.

Three Sport Towns

1. Houston:  I’d say Football, if only because its Texas (where football rules) and because the baseball team has a history of underperforming.  Houston is definitely a destination spot for NBA players (tax purposes, warm-weather city) but does it out-shine the Texans?  Clearly it isn’t the Astros, who may lose 115 games this year.

2. Toronto: Hockey.  One of the original 6 NHL franchises, a troubled basketball squad and the general dissatisfaction in Canada re: professional baseball since the strike.

3. Oakland: Football. Raider-nation is psychotic.  The A’s lack of expenditure and outright politicking to move to San Jose has soured the community on baseball to the point where large swaths of the outfield are tarped over during regular season games.  Golden State has reached the playoffs once in the past 18 years.

4. St. Louis: Baseball.  Perhaps Football, with the run-and-gun Rams and the incredible noise they generate in their indoor stadium. But St. Louis has the 2nd most successful baseball franchise in the sport (in terms of World Series victories) and a continual line of success.

5. Pittsburgh: Football.  No one can trump the Steelers, not even the owned-by-team-legend Penguins.  In most other cities this would be a hockey town.

6. Tampa Bay: Football.  Despite a recent run of success, the Rays barely draw (though have great TV ratings).  The Lightning are a great team … but I can’t see such a warm weather city really dedicating itself to a cold-weather sport.  So by default we have Football.

7. Cleveland: Football. The moving of the original Browns franchise was one of the true tragedies of sports relocation; a beloved team that was well supported picking up and moving.  So controversial was the move that the city was allowed to keep its name and almost immediately an expansion team was “invented” to give back to the city.

8. Milwaukee: Football, if you count Green Bay as being in the Milwaukee Market.  And I do, which may or may not be considered “correct” in the opinion of Wisconsin natives.

Two Sport Towns: these towns are either-or, and mostly football wins.

1. San Francisco: Football.  Despite all the history with the Giants, going to 49ers games reinforces the notion that the Bay Area loves its football.  This is the single city for which I disagree with Calcaterra, perhaps because I’ve seen 49er games and, well, they’re just as crazy as Raider fans.

2. Seattle: Football. Seahawks games are notorious for being amongst the loudest in the league despite an open-air stadium.  The Mariners have some history of success, and a great following, but don’t out-weigh the Football team.

3. San Diego: Football again; the baseball team doesn’t really draw and this beautiful-weather city doesn’t like to commit to spending its sunny evenings at baseball games.  Of course, it would help if their owner would open up his pocketbook once in a while.

4. Baltimore: Football. It was a travesty when the Colts left town, but the team has embraced its Ravens.  The Orioles had their shot to take over the town during the no-football period, and it looked as if they just might.  With one of the crown jewel stadiums in the league they shot to the top of the baseball world (for a time in the mid 90s it was Baltimore with the highest payroll in the league, not the Yankees).  Unfortunately owner Angelos has run the team into the ground, and the changing baseball market forces now mean that Baltimore is destined to be a 2nd tier team for the extended future.

5. Cincinnati: Baseball.  Both pro teams (Reds and Bengals) have respected histories and long line of success.  And yet both teams have struggled as of late.  The Reds have 3 World Series victories since 1940 but none since a shock win in 1990, and its been a long time since the Big Red Machine was in effect.  But the Bengals have never won a superbowl and havn’t even reached it since 1988.   By virtue of the Reds recent run of success I’ll go with Baseball.

6. Kansas City: Football all the way.  The Royals may look dangerous this season, but they’ve lost an entire generation of fans to ineptitude.  Meanwhile the Chiefs are an original AFL landmark and make Arrowhead one of the best home field advantages in the league.

7. Indianapolis: Arguable.  Indiana is the heart of Basketball middle-america, the home of Hoosiers and major basketball pride in the high schools and colleges.  So are the Pacers the leading sports interest?  Not with the sustained success of the Colts football team, led by possible best-ever player Peyton Manning.  But Manning is gone, and I think Basketball is still king.

8. Charlotte: none?  Charlotte is home to the Panthers and to the Bobcats.  Because of the college-basketball crazy state of North Carolina, one would think that Basketball would be king.  But the new franchise has one playoff appearance in its history and seems to be going backwards under new owner Michael Jordan (at least in the opinion of basketball pundits and observers).  The Old franchise was so abhorred due to owner’s George Shinn’s personal conduct that the community more or less boycotted the games, forcing their move to New Orleans.  Meanwhile are the Panthers the hot name in town either?  They’ve made one super bowl appearance but finished last year 2-14.  I’m going with Basketball just by default.

9. New Orleans: Football!  With an exclamation point; the “Who-Dat” Saints have always been the soul of this sports-town.  2010′s Super Bowl victory was just icing on the cake.  The basketball team shouldn’t have been moved there to begin with, and struggled so badly that the league bought out Shinn’s interest in order to keep them (for whatever reason) in New Orleans.  (Perhaps a move to Seattle is in the cards?)

10. Nashville: Football. The Predators are never going to out-live the pull of the Titans.

11. Buffalo: Tough one.  I’d go Football if only because the city still holds on to its great run of super bowl appearances, except that the team is playing “home games” in Toronto every year.  The hockey team has never won the league but has been a pretty strong lately, so I’m going with a Hockey town.


Summary by sport:

  • Football: 20
  • Baseball: 5
  • Basketball: 4
  • Hockey: 3

Thoughts?  Feedback?  Do you think I have some of these cities mid-pegged?

Written by Todd Boss

February 21st, 2013 at 10:39 am

ESPN Films “The Dotted Line” — a review

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Scott Boras is probably the most well known agent to Nats fans, representing roughly a quarter of our 40-man roster. Photo Ezra Shaw/Getty images via espn.com

(this is an ongoing series of personal reviews of ESPN film’s newly released documentaries.  See here for some previous discussions).

ESPN Film’s latest documentary, by excellent film maker Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame), discusses sports agents and their role in the sports industry.  It is an excellent documentary and vaults into the upper echelon of the films that have been part of the original 30-for-30 series, in this person’s opinion.  Spurlock touches on the agent process for non superstars, talks to some big-name agents about corruption and problems in the industry, analyzes why agents exist and their role in professional sports, and takes a look at how sports agents (specifically David Falk) have enabled athletes to go from, well, athletes to world-known figures by virtue of negotiated advertising and sponsorship contracts.

The documentary first followed a smaller sports agency (ETL) as he recruited lower level football prospects, giving a pretty interesting viewpoint into the business of smaller-time agents not named Scott Boras or Drew Rosenhaus.  The cutthroat-ness of the industry came through loud and clear as one of ETL’s clients freely ditched the signing agent for a larger company after he had been drafted, despite ETL having nursed the player through the process and invested thousands of dollars in his draft preparation.  There’s no regulation, and seemingly no ethics, in the representation contracts that are signed and broken as easily as junior high school students date and then break up.

The interview with Michael Jordan super-agent David Falk was indeed eye-opening, if only because most of us now take sports commercials, Nike, Gatorade and Under Armour for granted.  In the early 80s, there was no such sports commercial market.  Falk and Jordan invented the genre and made each other rich and filthy rich in the process.  There was a telling quote; Nike expected to sell 3 million pairs of Air Jordan sneakers in the first two years.  They sold 150m instead.

Spurlock also talked about shadiness on the agent’s side, interviewing Josh Luchs, the former sports agent who disclosed years of shady practices in an eye-opening Sports Illustrated article in October of last year.  In typical Spurlock fashion, he took Luchs back to the “scene of the crime,” and Luchs showed how easy it remains to this day for agents to have access to players for recruiting.  I’m not sure what point he was making, proving that access to a public university campus is rather easy, but the intent was to Luch’s often repeated point about how the Ncaa and schools have done little to address the issues that Luchs himself admitted to.

For me, the salient point in the documentary was a quote towards the end of the piece, after discussing all the shadiness.  David Falk, when prompted, basically said that (i’m paraphrasing) “He didn’t see how it was possible to get started in the sports agent business without giving payments to athletes.”  That line appeared just before a commercial break and I audibly said, “Wow” to myself upon hearing it.  To have one of the most clean-cut agents in the business basically admit that rule breaking is nearly a requirement to break into the business was alternatively shocking and amazingly honest to hear.

I don’t think this documentary was powerful enough to actually cause its subjects to change their behaviors (McDonalds changed their menu options and decreased the sizes of their drinks and french-fry packages not long after the film embarassed the restaurant chain).  But it was an interesting watch into an industry that we often only see when a pro athlete has done something reprehensible.

Written by Todd Boss

October 27th, 2011 at 9:10 am

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”