Bill Littlefield Says Sports Really Are 'Only a Game' Author and NPR sports show host Bill Littlefield reminds his readers to remain calm while they watch and play sports. His new book is a collection of essays, articles and poems about everything from Major League Baseball, to women's soccer, to Alistair Cooke's love of games.
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Bill Littlefield Says Sports Really Are 'Only a Game'

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Bill Littlefield Says Sports Really Are 'Only a Game'

Bill Littlefield Says Sports Really Are 'Only a Game'

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ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Are you a Chicago Cubs fan losing sleep about the possibility of another season of curses, dashed hopes and futility? Are you disgusted that the New England Patriots were caught stealing signals from the opposing team? Or disappointing - or disappointed that the new home run record might be the result of performance-enhancing drugs instead of pure athletic talent?

Well, Bill Littlefield says calm down. It's only a game. That, of course, is the name of his weekly radio program on NPR. It's also the name of his new book, a collection of essays, articles and poems about everything, from baseball, to women's soccer, to Alistair Cooke's love of games and the Cookie Monster.

Littlefield isn't so much a sportswriter as he is a writer who uses sports to tell stories about the human condition. He generally reminds us that between winning and losing, there is something essential to learn about the human experience and the simple charms of the game. Later in the hour, author Mike Gill and his new book, "How Starbucks Saved My Life."

But first, Bill Littlefield and his perspective on sports. And Bill, great to have you with us.

BILL LITTLEFIELD: It is good to be there.

BROOKS: As always, we want to hear from you, the listeners. How does sports fit into your life? Do you take them too seriously or do you realize it's only a game? If you have questions for Bill Littlefield, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK, and our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And of course, you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And Bill, who joins us from WBUR in Boston, of course, our listeners know you well as host of the NPR sports show of the same name, ONLY A GAME, which is also the name of your new book. And your book and your show, it's a gentle admonishment. In general, are we too crazy about sports?

LITTLEFIELD: Well, I think some of us, certainly, are too crazy about sports. And the evidence is - you know, it was clear in, you know, places like, oh, the stands of little league ball fields, where parents getting into shouting matches with coaches because their kids aren't getting enough playing time and sometimes, of course, it's much worse than that.

We had an episode up here in Massachusetts a few years ago, where the father of one player actually killed the father of another player when they get into a fight at a hockey rink up here. So, sometimes certainly, it's very crazy indeed.

BROOKS: Well, it's the season of baseball or the end of the regular season. Let's talk about baseball. We're in the final week of the regular season, with some pretty tight and interesting races. I wanted to talk to you about the Cubs. Certainly, for the legions…

LITTLEFIELD: How much time have we got?

BROOKS: We'll try to keep this, you know, within an hour. Certainly, for the legions of their long-suffering fans who haven't enjoyed a World Series victory, I guess, since sometime before the middle ages, this is much more than only a game for them certainly, right?

LITTLEFIELD: Well, it depends on who you listen to. I've heard all sorts of stories about people who have rooted for the Chicago Cubs all of their lives. There are two basic, sort of, descriptions that I've heard. One is that Cubs fans just like to suffer, and they know that they will if they root for the Cubs, and they enjoy it. It sort of reminds them that they're alive.

And the other is that Cubs fans, just like to go to the ballpark and party, and it doesn't really matter what's going on in the ball field. Wrigley is a great place to party. The sun is warm, the beer is cold and it's a wonderful place to spend a few hours. So, you know, yes, I think there are a certain number of people who take the whole thing entirely too seriously. But I would think by and large, Chicago Cubs fans probably have a healthier attitude, albeit an attitude born of certain amount of deprivation over the years, than fans of lots of other baseball teams.

BROOKS: You know, in your book, you have a lovely piece entitled, "What If They Win?" This was written in 2004 just before the Red Sox won their first championship since 1918.

LITTLEFIELD: Right.

BROOKS: And talk about the premise of that piece because it occurs to me that it could be applied to the Cubs at this point.

LITTLEFIELD: I think it can. I think it can, Tony. The premise of the piece was simply that everybody who roots for the Red Sox would be much better off if the Red Sox didn't win even though they might not understand that because - and again, I was looking forward, not realizing that 2004 would be the year in which a month of Sundays appeared on the calendar et cetera, et cetera. If the Red Sox won the World Series, I said, they would simply be another team that had won the World Series. And goodness, the Phillies did won the World Series, the Mets had won the World Series, anybody could do it, right? Florida won the World Series, for goodness sake.

And yet, the far more powerful kind of, in sort of impulse that I had was to hope that the Red Sox wouldn't win the World Series because as long as they didn't win the World Series, they would be generating stories about how they almost won the World Series, and these would be stories that all of us could relate to because of all the many things in our lives that we almost got right but didn't quite, you know?

There's this - there's a wonderful Jimmy Breslin book called "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?" and it's about the first year of the New York Mets. And of course, they set a Major League record by losing 120 games in the first year of their existence. And Breslin says at one point during that very strange summer in New York, he kept running into people who would say, I've been a Mets fan all my life. And what they meant was they've been waiting for the Mets to…

BROOKS: Sure.

LITTLEFIELD: …come along to embody life as they understood it, which is you went out there and you did your best and you almost always got clobbered. And every once in a while - 42 times that season, I guess - the Mets actually won. But this is a little bit the same way with the Red Sox. We have these stories, we have these myths, you know, Mike Torrez, Bill Buckner, Luis Aparicio falling down as he ran around third base…

BROOKS: Sure.

LITTLEFIELD: …all sorts of myths to kind of sustain us. And in the myths, the hero always dies at the end, you know? He may slay one dragon, but the last dragon always gets them. And that was kind of the sustaining power of being in Boston or New England, in being a Red Sox fan, and…

BROOKS: Well, the risk of stepping out of my role as objective journalist. I got to say, as a long-suffering Red Sox fan, I was perfectly happy that they finally won.

LITTLEFIELD: Yes, and I think you had a lot of company. There is no doubt about that…

BROOKS: I was glad to shed that mantle of long-suffering fans.

LITTLEFIELD: …as a matter of fact, I got clobbered on the - in the talk radio stations for writing this in The Globe. I - my ears burned and I didn't know why until friends of mine who listened to those stations told me what a beating I had taken from the more standard fans.

BROOKS: Okay. We're talking to Bill Littlefield about his book, "Only a Game." You can call us at 800-989-8255. Let's take a call. Let's go to Bob(ph), who's calling from Columbus, Ohio. Hi, Bob.

BOB (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

BROOKS: Sure.

BOB: I'm curious what your guest thinks about the fact that - or as at least as I have observed fact - that so many people know so much more about sports teams than they do about politics or economic matters that affect their lives, and why that might be?

BROOKS: That's a good question, Bob. What do you think, Bill? Is this a healthy thing?

LITTLEFIELD: I think that - no. I don't think it's a healthy thing. The simple answer, Bob, is that sports, at least, give us the illusion of being much simpler, much easier to understand, you know? The ball either goes into the basket or it doesn't. The end either catches the ball or it doesn't, or he doesn't. It's a foul or fair, you know, ball or strike, whatever. These are easy things to understand at the end of each game - somebody has won and somebody has lost - and that they're easy things to talk about, they're easy things to argue about.

Was Mickey Mantle better than Willie Mays - and there are some people who maintain that lunatic assumption. But in any case, politics and economics are so much more difficult and in many cases, especially with politics, so intentionally confused. The people who talk about politics and try to convince us of one premise or another are, you know, smiling liars everywhere we go, trying to confuse us, trying to be demagogues. And that's rarely the case with sports. Sometimes, you have people who say I just wanted - I just want to do the best I can for the team and cliches like that. But what happens on the field, you know, in or out, up or down, foul or fair, it's easy to understand.

BROOKS: Bill, you've been at this for quite a while, as we mentioned in the introduction. What is it about sports that keeps you going so long? I mean, you're a great writer. You could be writing about anything. You're obviously drawn to sports as a sort of tableau for telling your stories. Why?

LITTLEFIELD: Well, you're very kind to say I'm a great writer who could write about anything. I'm not sure that's true. But the attraction for me with sports is that the stories that our games generate. Everywhere I go, I find these remarkable stories.

I was in Pittsburg a year or so ago and went into a gym in Pittsburg, and I met fighters and trainers and card girls and all kinds of politicians hanging around. The mayor came into the gym in the middle of the afternoon - all kinds of strange stuff happening. And I came out of there with more stories than I could tell in the context of the radio program. And I don't even like boxing, you know? If I were king of the forest, there wouldn't be any boxing because the damage is too great.

But the stories are everywhere. And I go to a dugout three hours before a Major League Baseball game and I sit down with somebody who is a coach, and I talk about - I ran into Joel Skinner recently in a major league dugout and we got to talking about Bob Skinner who was his dad. And it suddenly occurred to me that at the first game I'd ever gone to, in 1954, when the Giants were hosting the Pirates in the Polo Grounds, Bob Skinner was playing for the Pirates. And I'm sitting with Joel Skinner and I said, hey, I saw your dad play when I was 6-years-old.

BROOKS: That's great.

LITTLEFIELD: I mean, this kind of things happen all the time.

BROOKS: What sport has yielded the most interesting people for you to talk to, because in your work, you don't necessarily go after, you know, the big stars? I mean, you're not really looking for that necessarily.

LITTLEFIELD: Well, I like to keep an open mind so that whatever happens, I'm alert to possibilities. You know, years ago, there was a young fellow playing for the Minnesota Twins - I can't remember his name - who came out of the dugout two, three hours before the game, walked up into the stands. He's in full uniform except he has on slippers, instead of spikes, walks up into the stands.

And I went over and I said, you know, this is kind of weird. You're sitting here in the stands. You know, a couple of hours from now, people would pay a hundred bucks for that opportunity to sit in the dugout for a minute, and here you are in the stands. I said, why is that? And he said, sometimes, I like to do this before the games because we work so hard at this that sometimes we forget how beautiful it is.

BROOKS: That was nice.

LITTLEFIELD: I'd like to come up and look at it from the stands to remind myself of how beautiful it is. I think, you know, just luck to encounter people like that.

BROOKS: Hmm. We're talking with Bill - we're talking with Bill Littlefield. You might now him from his radio show, ONLY A GAME, which, of course, is heard on many NPR stations across the country. Now, he has a new book out with that same name.

We'll get to more of your calls in a minute. Give us a call. Ask Bill Littlefield a question. Tell us where sports fits into your life. Call us at 800-989-8255. Or shoot as an e-mail, the address is talk@npr.org.

I'm Anthony Brooks. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BROOKS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

And we're talking this hour with Bill Littlefield. He is host of the NPR sports show ONLY A GAME, and now, author of a book of collected pieces by the same name.

And, Bill, I wanted to ask you about your affection for rhyme, for poetry because a lot of your pieces are written in verse, and a lot of NPR listeners are familiar with them. And I was wondering if I could get you to read one.

LITTLEFIELD: Sure.

BROOKS: Yeah. It's the piece and - hold on, I have to reach for a note. "Rewriting History" on page 115.

LITTLEFIELD: Okay. Yeah. This - I wrote this actually in March of 2003. And I guess the sad thing is that it's still applicable. But anyway, March is, of course - late February early March is when spring training begins. And that's the subject of the beginning of the piece.

(Reading) I'd like to be in Florida or out West in the sun, where baseball players stretch and toss and sometimes almost run; where time stand still beneath blue skies on green and glowing land, and there is nothing much to think about or understand.

I'd like to be in Arizona or beside the sea, where ancient men in sun hats largely let each other be, and talk - if talk, they do - about the new kid out and left, and listen to the talk of batting practice quite bereft of reason for concern, or any worry - big or small - that's not within the arc of that bright painted outfield wall.

Outside the bubble of the game, as it's being played these days, we fret about the gutters clogged with sludge in all the ways that the ice and sleet can wreck our plans or snow and sudden flurries. And then, of course, there is another host of gruesome worries - about the war that's coming.

Never mind the reservations of thoughtful souls, compassionates and lots and lots of nations that were content, in former times, to do as they were told. But in the shadow of these days, have all grown oddly bold enough to say that war is unpredictable, obscene, and likely to turn more against us than we've ever seen.

So me, for the outfield bleachers and the breezes of the tropics, where bat speed and the mascot are about the only topics that anyone discusses if they feel compelled to chat. And who would leave a living with six weeks built in like that? A crazy man, that's who. And that's what leads me to conclude the country is being led by one plum, nutty, cowboy dude.

Consider this blunt truth, kind friends, old listeners. Here is the rub. Our W, the president, once owned a baseball club. Had he been held the job, he could be lounging, as I talk, where pitchers pitch and hitters hit and walkers likely walk, instead of scaring off old friends and terrifying strangers. You understand why I wish he still owned the Texas Rangers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BROOKS: Nice job. 800-989-8255, for your questions for Bill Littlefield.

Let's go to Susan(ph) who's calling from Columbus. Hi, Susan.

SUSAN (Caller): Hi. I love that poem.

LITTLEFIELD: Well, thank you very much.

SUSAN: Listen. I was wondering if maybe we get so emotional and express our emotions, feel free to, because it's only a game. At both ends of it, my husband and I have noticed that, you know, with all the horrible things happening like the war in Iraq, what puts us in a bad mood or a good mood at our house is what's happening with the Red Sox.

LITTLEFIELD: Because you can understand it in a way that politics…

SUSAN: Yeah.

LITTLEFIELD: …makes it very difficult to understand.

SUSAN: Well, and at other end, too - and I think the more interesting end -it's safer to express our emotions because it's only a game. I can't call the president of the Iran an evil, demersal, cheating swine but I can call A-Rod that. That actually is what they view…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SUSAN: I mean, it's…

LITTLEFIELD: It's sort of built in. It's the fan's prerogative, isn't it?

SUSAN: Oh, well, as a Red Sox is saying anyway.

LITTLEFIELD: Yeah.

SUSAN: But it just seems to me that things that seems make people uncomfortable because there's zealotry and they're hateful in any other area. When it comes to sports, it's safe to let us that kind of venom or that kind of thrill. And I think specifically because it's only a game. If it were important, it would make everyone uncomfortable.

LITTLEFIELD: I like that. I like that very much. Yeah. That may come back at you in a commentary sometime, when I have forgotten that I got it from somebody else.

SUSAN: Well, it was inspired by your show.

BROOKS: Well, Susan, thanks so much for calling in.

SUSAN: Thank you. Bye.

BROOKS: Bill, let me read you an e-mail from Casey(ph) in Tempe, Arizona. I was wondering what's your opinion on the result of the voting for Barry Bonds' 756th home run that Marc Ecko bought.

LITTLEFIELD: Mm-hmm.

BROOKS: Do you think it was a good idea for him to do it and do you think that will get much recognition at Cooperstown with an asterisk burned into it?

LITTLEFIELD: Yeah. For people who may not be entirely familiar with the story. The fellow who bought the record-breaking home run announced that he would do whatever people who voted via cyberspace wanted him to do. And he said he would send the home run ball into space forever, or he would put an asterisk on it and send it to the hall of fame. That was - those were two of the options. And the second was the one that everybody voted for.

So apparently, the ball will go into the hall of fame and it will have a big asterisk on it. And the people at the hall of fame have announced that they think that's just fine. They're happy to accept donated relics like the record-breaking home run ball that Bonds hit.

I think it's very funny and I think it makes for a good story. And I root for everything that makes for good story. So I think that's a much better fate for that ball than to just have it be, you know, consecutively sold to crazier and crazy - crazy and crazier people down the ages who have more and more money to spend on such things.

BROOKS: Let's take a call. Let's go to Chris(ph) who's calling from Tallahassee. Hi, Chris. Chris, are you there?

CHRIS (Caller): Hey, Bill.

LITTLEFIELD: Hi.

BROOKS: Yeah, you're on the air. You're on the air with Bill Littlefield.

CHRIS: Hello.

BROOKS: Yes, Chris. Can you hear me? You're on the air.

CHRIS: I can hear you. I just wanted to comment about Bill's - are you guys there?

LITTLEFIELD: Yeah. I can hear you.

BROOKS: Yes, we are, Chris. We're all ears.

CHRIS: Okay. There was a comment Bill said about that doesn't seem to be as much demagoguery in sports. It may be likened to other parts of life, like religion or politics. And I just wanted to say that the Southeastern Conference Football…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHRIS: …I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHRIS: As an Alabama fan, we were quite certain that Satan is under gradual work at Auburn and…

LITTLEFIELD: Yeah. Yeah.

CHRIS: …Knoxville harbors al-Qaida terrorists up there. So I'll just take your comments off the air. Thank you so much, Bill.

BROOKS: Thanks a lot, Chris. You know, I've got to second what he said, Bill. I spent a year out in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

LITTLEFIELD: Yeah.

BROOKS: And I tell you, Big Ten football…

LITTLEFIELD: Absolutely.

BROOKS: …I mean, talk about demagoguery, I mean, for some serious stuff going on out there.

LITTLEFIELD: There's no danger of understatement when people talk about things like Alabama, Auburn or, you know, Iowa, Michigan State, whatever it might be. But - yeah, I think that caller makes clear of it. There is a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to this stuff, at least most of the time. I mean, maybe not for the people who have been drinking in the parking lot for days before the game, but for most people who engage in that sort of thing. And perhaps, that's the difference, that tongue-in-cheek quality.

BROOKS: Okay. Let's go to Bob(ph) in San Antonio. Bob, you're on the air.

BOB (Caller): Thank you. I need to take a look in the issue with the statement about the Cubs - it would be better if the Cubs did not win the World Series.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOB: Our family, as being a fan, goes back to my great, great grandfather. And I'm 58. I think it would lend some legitimacy, just the fact that you're being a fan, you wouldn't be the butt of jokes anymore. My sons are fans. My granddaughter's name is Addison Clark.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOB: And it becomes part of your family heritage. So if you couldn't give something back to your family, a World Series would be the greatest thing. And I'll take comments off the air.

BROOKS: All right, Bob. Well, thanks a lot. Yeah, I think you might want to think about running that piece what if they - think again about running that piece from Chicago papers about World Series.

LITTLEFIELD: Well, hey, anybody whose granddaughter's name is Addison Clark, which are two of the streets that surround Wrigley Field, I'm all for that. And, of course, I wish for Addison Clark and all the members of her family that the Cubs should win the World Series.

The real possibility, of course, this time around, the Cubs are on top of their division albeit by merely a couple of games. There is a real possibility that the Cubs and the Cleveland Indians would play in the World Series this time around. And I, for one, would be much happier to see that than oh, say, the Yankees against the Mets.

BROOKS: Bill, I want to ask you about who some of the most memorable people are that you've interviewed over the years. And I'm thinking here about an appreciation in your book of Alistair Cooke.

LITTLEFIELD: Mm-hmm.

BROOKS: He's famous. Of course, he's hosted "Masterpiece Theatre." And before that, for his "Letter from America." What's he doing in this book about sports?

LITTLEFIELD: Well, he - some years back, he published a book of his golf writings and some writings about other sports as well. He'd written about cricket and a little bit about rowing and various other things, but mostly golf. And I had an opportunity to go down to interview him at the hotel where he was staying in Boston. And he was incredibly gracious, just as nice and pleasant as he could be. And it was really fun. It was an honor.

And at one point toward the end of our conversation, I decided to sort of ask an impish question and I said, how do you like the idea that on "Sesame Street" there's a character named Alistair Cookie and he hosts a program called "Monsterpiece Theater"?

And this gigantic grin appeared on Mr. Cooke's face, and he said, isn't it wonderful? Isn't it wonderful people see me in the airport and they recognized that I'm the inspiration for the Cookie Monster, Alistair Cookie's, you know, role played by the Cookie Monster?

BROOKS: So that was okay with him?

Mr. LITTLEFIELD: Oh, he was - wonderfully said - this will live long after I've died.

BROOKS: Oh, that's nice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BROOKS: 1-800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK to talk to Bill Littlefield about his book "Only a Game." Let's go to Kanya(ph) in Kansas City. Hi, Kanya.

KANYA (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to talk about how much it meant for my alma mater, the Appalachian State University to beat Michigan this year in football. I was on the verge of sending my diploma back because I found out that the Miss Teen South Carolina, who made such an idiot out of herself, was actually getting - go to Appalachian. And right before I lick the stamp, Appalachian won that football game and I kept my diploma.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BROOKS: That's a nice story. Bill, though, remind - for some of the listeners who might not know the significance of that game - just how big that was.

LITTLEFIELD: It was big because it was supposed to be a kind of a bunny game for Michigan toward the beginning of the season. And Appalachian State rose up from their own division and slew the giant, so it was an upset to say the least.

And actually, our football analyst on the Saturday before that game - or of that game I guess - had predicted an overwhelming victory for Michigan…

KANYA: Oh, yeah.

LITTLEFIELD: …and, boy, did we hear about it in the e-mail the following week.

KANYA: Oh, I was one of the people who you've heard it from.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LITTLEFIELD: You had a lot of company, believe me, and it was all in good fun. Everybody had a good time with it, so it was great.

BROOKS: Kanya, thanks for the call.

KONYA: You're welcome. Bye.

BROOKS: Let's go to Steve in Scottsdale. Hi, Steve.

STEVE (Caller): Hi, Bill.

LITTLEFIELD: How are you doing?

STEVE: Good. Bill, I'm a lifelong baseball fan and I love baseball history. I just recently finished the "The Big Bam" by Leigh Montville and "The Luckiest Man"

LITTLEFIELD: Yeah.

STEVE: …by Jonathan Eig - books I hope you've read.

LITTLEFIELD: I have read "The Big Bam." I think it's great.

STEVE: "The Luckiest Man." Try it, although it's the saddest book I ever read in my life.

LITTLEFIELD: I read that one as well. Yeah, I didn't quite catch - hear what you said, but yes, I read that as well.

STEVE: One of the things that struck me in reading these books is the extraordinary RBI productivity of not only Ruth and Gehrig, but a lot of the players who played in that era. So I did some research and it's pretty interesting. There'd been 19 baseball teams in history who had 900 RBIs as a team a year or more, and there have been 18 players who have driven in more than a 150 runs a year.

The overwhelming majority of these happened between 1921 and 1939. Thirteen teams did it between '21 and '39. Only seven teams did it after 1950, only five after 1996 - after 1953. Of the 150 RBIs, again, almost all of these happened prior to 1939.

LITTLEFIELD: Well, I have to interrupt for a minute and just ask if anybody has ever seen you and Tim Kurkjian in the same room at the same time?

STEVE: I have never heard of him.

LITTLEFIELD: Well, Tim is our baseball guy, and he is the statistical king. Also, we share him with ESPN, which…

STEVE: How come…

LITTLEFIELD: …how he actually makes a living.

BROOKS: Hold the phone gentlemen just for a second because I need to remind our listeners that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Yeah, go ahead, Steve.

STEVE: During this era, the ERA pre '39 was also slightly lower than post 1950. And I have theories about why…

BROOKS: But, Steve, Steve…

STEVE: (Unintelligible) better then, and if so, why?

BROOKS: Steve, let me just jump in here because I want Bill to respond us here. It sounds like, Bill, that Steve is saying pitchers and hitters were a whole lot better and around the 1960s, right? Well…

STEVE: Prior to 1940.

BROOKS: Prior to 1940, yeah.

Mr. LITTLEFIELD: The numbers are very difficult to compare era to era, partly because of the composition of the baseball, partly because of other equipment, bats, partly because of the raising and lowering of the mound, partly because of years when there's expansion and all of a sudden, there's much less good pitching for hitters to face than there was before they were more teens. So it's kind of difficult. Also, of course, in the old days, the spitball was legal, you know, all kinds of things.

So it's difficult to compare era to era. But, I think, probably the answers to your questions are somewhere in the voluminous research of SABR, the Society of American Baseball Research. And somebody has doubtless written a tome or six about this, I'm quite sure.

BROOKS: Well, Steve thanks for the question. Bill, let me ask you is there one big story that in some way defines this period that you've been writing about, this transition from the 20th to the 21st century. What stands out?

Mr. LITTLEFIELD: I think that lots of people would have lots of different answers to that question. My own bias is that the most important story that's happened at the end of the 20th, into the beginning of the 21st century is the difference in women sports.

BROOKS: Hmm.

Mr. LITTLEFIELD: Many, many more high school girls playing sports; Many, many more opportunities for women in college to get scholarships, not only in the sports that we see on television especially basketball in the case of women, but in all the sports - women playing soccer and getting scholarships to do that. And not all teams were at track and field. People taking women much more seriously as athletes than they used to do.

And, of course, at the highest level that's reflected in the success of the WNBA and the fact that we're going to see the women's pro soccer league come back a year from next spring as well.

These opportunities of salaries for female coaches were not where we need to be, but we're getting there and that's a big story.

BROOKS: And as we speak, the women's World Cup now underway in China with the U.S. women rank number one. But are people watching? Are they paying attention?

Mr. LITTLEFIELD: Well, I have the opportunity to watch. I was very happy to learn months ago that ESPN was going to put all the games on TV, so you could even watch, you know, Germany playing Norway this morning unless your cable went out, which mine did about five minutes after eight.

But I hope it will be back in service, so I can see the U.S. women play Brazil tomorrow morning 8 o'clock. All those games are out there. Some people are writing nice articles about it, and unfortunately not enough newspapers and magazines felt that they should send people to China to cover it directly.

BROOKS: Well, Bill Littlefield, thanks so much for coming in. What a pleasure.

Mr. LITTLEFIELD: My delight. Thank you, Anthony.

BROOKS: You're welcome. Bill Littlefield, author of "Only a Game." He's also host of the NPR's sports show with the same name, Only a Game. He's been talking to us from member station WBUR in Boston.

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