Sports And Life: Head-To-Head

It's the first in a series of conversations between host Rachel Martin and NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca. Pesca digs deeper into big sports stories from the week, and brings one wildcard story that stayed under the radar.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE IS A BALLGAME")

SISTER WYNONA CARR: (Singing) Life is a ball game being played...

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Well, if it is true that life is a ballgame, then NPR's Mike Pesca is the guy in the stands madly filling out his score card, sharing his nachos and maybe an opinion or two.

With that, we welcome Mike Pesca to the show for the first of many conversations I am looking forward to having about sports and life, and the interesting places that the two intersect.

Hey, Mike. Welcome to the show.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, this week the big theme in the world of sports was the whole question of sports figures weighing in on political issues, when that's dangerous. I guess it all starts with Marlins' manager Ozzie Guillen.

PESCA: Yeah, Ozzie Guillen who is called outspoken, if you want to say a nice thing - he really just shoots his mouth off and says dumb things a lot of times. And he said one of the dumbest recently when he was quoted by Time magazine as saying, "I love Fidel Castro. I respect Fidel Castro. A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the past 60 years, but that dude" - he didn't say dude - "is still here." And it's a problem to praise Fidel Castro, especially when you're the manager of the Miami Marlins.

MARTIN: Obviously, we should underscore the point: the Miami Marlins used to be the Florida Marlins. They relocated to Miami, huge Cuban-American population in that city - not so keen on Castro, those folks.

PESCA: Yeah. But the thing that stood out to me was that the whole incident was tagged with his assertion: You know what? I'm going to stay out of politics from now on. And, you know, I don't think what he said was actually delving into politics. I think it's somewhere around the intersection of human rights and marketing, and it got me to thinking that it is so very rare for athletes to get into the political realm or take on any issue of the day. Then I thought it was notable that a couple of weeks ago that a team playing in the very market, the Miami Heat, all donned hoodies in solidarity with Trayvon Martin.

MARTIN: Because that's what a lot of people were doing, right? In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, a lot of public figures were wearing hoodies in solidarity with...

PESCA: Right, right. So, Bobby Rush on the floor of Congress and Roland Martin on CNN and Jennifer Granholm on Current - people changed their Twitter avatars. You know, most of the members of the Heat are young black men, just like Trayvon Martin was. It would seem perfectly acceptable for them to take this stand. But I said to myself, wow, I didn't expect it, it's so notable and I realized we're more shocked and surprised when a sports figure says anything about anything remotely political that a figure for almost any other walk of life. I think that we think of the athletes in the '68 Mexico Olympics who raised their hand and we think of Muhammad Ali or Bill Russell and athletes who have taken political stands. And we remember them fondly, but we don't realize just how much of an exception that is.

The overriding ethic among athletes seems not to be Muhammad Ali but instead that other great icon, Michael Jordan, who said Republicans buy sneakers too. And they think we're very much in a Republicans-buy-sneakers-too moment probably excessively because in the past week you had Bubba Watson, who just won the Masters last Sunday; you have him saying: I think Augusta Country Club should open its doors to women. And this is supposedly a very controversial stance to take. But he was greeted - at least in the interviews that he did - by being a guy who's willing to speak an uncomfortable truth, if anything. So, the points here is that I think athletes are perhaps excessively hesitant to weigh in on politics. And we see in some of these examples that it's just fine when they express their first amendment rights.

MARTIN: OK. In our last few moments, Mike, what else has been on your radar this week?

PESCA: I came across this study in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports - I don't know if you let your subscription lapse or...

MARTIN: Every once in a while I forget to pay my subscription fee.

PESCA: There was one study though that caught my eye, and it did have phrases like: B1 are unstandardized regression coefficients. But what they used their advanced knowledge on was to study statues outside of baseball stadiums. And they wanted to say who gets a statue? What are the factors that give a guy a statue? Is it just that Hall of Famers get statues? And they came up with a couple of interesting things.

MARTIN: Do tell.

PESCA: Yes. To get a statue outside a stadium, it really helps to have played with that team exclusively for your entire career. So, you are more than twice as likely to have a statue outside your stadium if you only wore one uniform, than even if you played 80 percent of your games with that team. Factor two: because of nostalgia and who the fan base is, the midpoint for one's career to maximize their chances of a statue, 1963. That is the sweet spot for having a statue. And then they also looked at - so, according to our criteria, who are the guys who really should have a statue who meet most of the criteria, but they don't have a statue? The answer is Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox and Tom Seaver of the Mets. The other side of that question is: so, who has statues that probably shouldn't, at least by our analysis? Honus Wagner - he played a long time ago for the Pittsburgh Pirates - and Nolan Ryan. One of the things that hurts Nolan Ryan is he played for so many different teams. But still, the Rangers...

MARTIN: But he still got a statue.

PESCA: Still got a statue. Rangers claim him as their own.

MARTIN: So, this study is completely inconclusive.

PESCA: No, not at all. It's just saying, what's that Nolan Ryan statue doing there? That's odd.

MARTIN: NPR's Mike Pesca on all things sports. Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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