RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
You know, what if is a really great question. It can unleash the imagination in all kinds of ways. Now, sure, you can find yourself lost in a grass is greener kind of rabbit hole, but if used in moderation, wondering what if can be a fascinating intellectual exercise. And it must be said that sports fans are particularly good at the what if. Sports, after all, is full of counterfactual possibilities replete with drama.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Deep to left - Yastrzemski will not get it. It's a home run.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: There's Paxson to three. Yes. The Bulls...
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Lloyd with Morgan streaking. She's chipping the goalkeeper.
MARTIN: Mike Pesca loves this drama, and he understands well the power of the what-if, which is why he has put together a new book titled "Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs In Sports History." And he joins us now. Mike Pesca, host of The Gist and friend of the show, thanks for being with us.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Well, thank you for having me, Rachel. And I do think - so you were saying sports fans understand what-ifs. I was thinking, as you said that, it's more as if we've had it thrust upon us...
PESCA: ...Because in every league, there are many, many more losers than winners, right? Every season ends with a team either not making the playoffs or being eliminated from the playoffs.
PESCA: That means everyone's a loser. And in almost all cases, every one of those losers has a moment, and their fans have a moment, when they say what if - legitimate or not, and it's often legitimate. And sometimes, the what-if extends beyond one pitch, and it goes to that draft pick we didn't make eight years ago. That's kind of the engine of sports.
MARTIN: OK. So this is 31 different chapters, 31 different scenarios, of what-ifs written by some of the country's greatest sportswriters. And I just want to go through a couple of these different scenarios. I want to start with one essay written by Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal. And his essay is titled "What If Football Had Been Deemed Too Boring In 1899?". So start us off by explaining what was happening in 1899.
PESCA: 1899 - they were inventing this game. It turned into carnage between the lines. It was eventually rehabbed by Theodore Roosevelt because too many people were dying. But back then, it was just, you know, bunches of guys grunting into a line and going two yards at a time. So football was boring then. What if it stayed boring and there was no football in America? And so Jason paints a picture of Sundays that are free for, perhaps, to worship at your local church. The foam finger industry would certainly take a big setback. Soccer might be more popular. There are many ways that football has entangled itself in the rhythm of life that maybe we don't even think about and he tries to untangle that.
MARTIN: I mean, it's in our - it's in our language. I mean, it wasn't really until I read that essay that I realized how many sports metaphors, but particular to football, creep into our everyday speech.
PESCA: That's right. Imagine if the nuclear codes were contained in the baseball. Maybe that would be different. I don't know.
MARTIN: So is he arguing that the demise in football - let's say it was super boring and it went away as a cultural phenomenon. Is he arguing that that is a good thing, that we as an American people would benefit if we had less football in our lives?
PESCA: He is just asking us to consider the possibilities. And this is one type of what-if essay that you throw a pebble, the ripples happen, and all Jason's doing with the essay is looking at the ripples and saying, oh, I didn't know it would ripple there in that particular way. There are other forms of essay which really talk about the sociological impact. And some of these are binary. The thing happens or the thing doesn't happen. And some of them are more, you know, let's just set in motion a set of actions and see what results.
MARTIN: So let's talk about one of those scenarios with much broader global implications really. This is by Shira Springer who writes about - well, I'll just say the title of the essay - "What If The United States Had Boycotted Hitler's Olympics?" I mean, that's huge.
MARTIN: Primarily, the first thing that comes to mind is that those Olympics made Jesse Owens a cultural icon.
PESCA: They did. And what happened to Jesse Owens afterwards was a crime, essentially. He was shunned in America to a large degree after being a hero who stood up to Hitler. They burnished Hitler's credentials. They established the Olympics as a political tool where they were supposed to transcend politics. And the great thing about that essay is it's also a history lesson, and history seems like it's inevitable. The march of history - well, of course, that was going to happen and of course Jesse Owens wins, and we close our eyes and we could see at least the newsreel footage. And when you erase the memory, I don't know exactly what you replace it with, but that's what Shira and a lot of the other essayists are trying to provide.
MARTIN: And lastly, I want to talk about this essay - this is so great. This is written by Paul Snyder, who is a track athlete, and his essay is titled "What If A Blimp Full Of Money Had Exploded Over World Track Headquarters In 1952?" And I will shorthand the premise here. It's about big money in sports in America, and we don't need to say that track and field - not a lot of money there. So let's imagine that there were.
MARTIN: So lay out what that looks like.
PESCA: Well, one scenario is that the battles we saw on the hardwood between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell very well could have taken place on the track because...
MARTIN: By hardwood, we mean the basketball court.
PESCA: That's right. But what if this all played out mano a mano, Russell against Chamberlain, on the track? And then he, as this huge track nerd, analyzes for himself if he would have liked that because I think fans of niche media do this thing where they wish it was bigger. They say, why doesn't everyone like this, you know, kind of prog rock that I do? But then he realizes that part of the appeal of track for him is the nerdom (ph)...
PESCA: ...And is also the things inherently that stops it from being a huge sport in America. It's always kind of a nice contemplation on that level.
MARTIN: I know. I loved the idea that to be a super successful sport it needs to be uber competitive and there needs to be all kinds of, like, aggression around it. And it seemed to me by the end of it he's just like, we're too nice. Like, track people, we're just, like, way too nice to be a really popular sport in America because it's just not what American sports culture is about.
PESCA: Yeah. Well, at least that's his perception of them, and maybe the niceness has something to do with the fact that there isn't blimps full of money sloshing around. Look, I have to be honest with you. All I ever wanted to do was write a book of essays that was blimp related, and this was the only chance that I could get a dirigible in there.
MARTIN: The book is a really fun read. It is called "Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs In Sports History," written by Mike Pesca, who is the host of The Gist on Slate. And he's got a new podcast about this very book and the essays contained in it. The podcast is called Upon Further Review. Mike, thanks so much.
PESCA: You're welcome.
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