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Are the Nats’ troubles the result of the Lincoln assassination?

May 30, 2013, 10:36 AM EDT


Well, that seems rather silly. Clearly it’s more to do with President Garfield’s murder, yes? A bad event which has given an entire city a complex which causes poor play to grow even worse as the team and its fans realize that, sadly, bad things will always befall them?

If you think that’s crazy then you haven’t been watching ESPN’s Bill Simmons diagnose the entire city of Memphis, which he believes grows pessimistic about their Grizzlies thanks to the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. Really:

“I didn’t realize the effect [The MLK assassination] had on that city…I think from people we talk to and stuff we’ve read, the shooting kind of sets the tone with how the city thinks about stuff. We were at Game 3. Great crowd, they fall behind and the whole crowd got tense. They were like, ‘Oh no, something bad is going to happen.’ And it starts from that shooting.”

These comments have led to a lot of fun on the Internet this morning, with folks making increasingly tortured explanations for a given city’s sports pessimism. “…and it starts from Mrs. O’Leary’s cow …” is maybe my favorite so far.

I have this feeling that, upon some reflection, Simmons will admit he was a bit off base on that and I’m sure that, by the light of morning, he would like to have that one back. But, even if it was just a moment of hyperbole, and even if it doesn’t have anything to do with baseball, it is worth thinking about what leads one to say stuff like that and to realize how that same impulse infects a lot of sports writing, baseball included.

Simmons has, in very large part, made a career out of (a) making broad generalizations of what a given city’s sports fans think and feel; and (b) connecting sports to positively everything. He has written thousands of words about the psychology of Bostonians. He has compared every bit of pop culture with which he is conversant to sports and vice-versa. That’s his very popular, very successful shtick.

But underlying that shtick is either a conceit or a miscalculation: that sports ARE life. Or that they are the most important thing in it. That sports reflect human reality in ways they really don’t and have a deeper meaning than they really do.

On occasion sports do transcend entertainment and have real meaning. Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. The 1980 U.S. hockey team. Jackie Robinson’s triumph. Billie Jean King schooling Bobby Riggs.  These moments do occur and when they do sports become something greater. Or, at the very least, serve as a microcosm of or a complement to something greater.

But it’s very rare that such things happen. For the most part, sports are a wonderful diversion. Games which may make our lives better, but after which life — real life — actually resumes. And they are just games.

So much bad sports writing — and bad sportsfandom for that matter — is the result of thinking that these games are more than just games. It leads Simmons to say silly things like he did last night. It leads beat writers to spin out horribly tortured metaphors when setting the scene of the previous night’s action. It leads columnists to make character judgments about ballplayers because of what they do on a diamond. It leads fans to become overly-invested and find heros, villains, bums, gods and frauds around every corner.  And all of that noise alienates people who would like to simply enjoy a game once in a while.

We should be careful of making too much of sports. We can take them seriously in the moment. We can be passionate about our teams and the players we love. We can immerse ourselves in them and talk about them from morning to night.  But we must never forget that, in the end, they are just games and that real life is something else altogether.

  1. bfunk1978 - May 30, 2013 at 10:49 AM

    I mean, maybe you’re onto something with the Nats. Taking John Wilkes Booth VIII was probably a bad idea in the 6th round of the 2009 draft, too.

  2. clarenceoveur - May 30, 2013 at 10:49 AM

    Its pretty obvious that Sonny Crockett’s inability to stop all that crack violence in Miami in the 80’s has set the tone for how Miami thinks about the Marlins.

    • kopy - May 30, 2013 at 11:17 AM

      To be fair, being USA’s primary importer of cocaine boosted Miami’s economy to a point at which they otherwise might have never gotten the Marlins.

      • jerze2387 - May 30, 2013 at 11:56 AM

        ..I always knew Loria’s money was Drug money

  3. blovy8 - May 30, 2013 at 10:51 AM

    Washington sports are usually more like Garfield’s. Painful wounding, some healing, then more pain, incompetent physicians get involved just when it seems things are going better, death of season ensues.

    • bfunk1978 - May 30, 2013 at 11:09 AM

      Last year’s baseball season was the most literal interpretation yet, what with some vital organs shutting down and all.

  4. cur68 - May 30, 2013 at 10:52 AM

    That’s a lot of heavy thinking for a Thursday. Too heavy for me.

    One thing that bothers me. Why was Mary Todd going slap Abe right after he got shot? Look at her in that picture! Total Bitch Slap, on the way. Man get shot in the head, his wife smacks him one right after. Jeez.

    • ltzep75 - May 30, 2013 at 1:49 PM

      Eh, she was probably upset that Abe had the nerve to go and get shot without telling her first.

  5. tcostant - May 30, 2013 at 10:54 AM

    Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t “assassinated”, he was murdered. Assassination is only related to elected officials or world leaders (where elections are not held).

    I watched a show a fews ago about the weeks leading up to the murder, will real TV footage of the time. If you think the world is screwed up now, you should have seen it then. He was in Memphis due to a garbage strike that was just getting ugly. The mayor didn’t care about a large percentage of the Memphis population.

    • aceshigh11 - May 30, 2013 at 11:03 AM

      MLK, Jr. WASN’T a world leader? He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He inspired people and resistance movements worldwide, just as Gandhi did.

      1968 was pretty much the worst year in American history.

      MLK assassinated. RFK assassinated. All the riots. Nixon getting elected.

      It’s hard to believe…I often wonder what it was like to have lived through that.

      • tcostant - May 30, 2013 at 11:25 AM

        Just passing along what I learned in grade school, when we discuss these topics…

      • stex52 - May 30, 2013 at 11:35 AM

        It was quite a trip. The whole latter half of the sixties was a roller coaster ride. ’68 was the low point. After RFK was shot I felt like there was a national sense of “How did we get here?”

        I was in high school. Remember that year with extreme clarity.

      • nolanwiffle - May 30, 2013 at 11:36 AM

        Why would you equate Richard Nixon being elected President to assasinations and race riots? Do you know anything about his presidency other than Watergate?

      • malbrecht4 - May 30, 2013 at 11:42 AM

        And you’re in the majority there. Most of the people in Memphis who go to Grizz games were either too young for 1968 to have an effect on them, or they were’nt even born yet.

      • mybrunoblog - May 30, 2013 at 11:50 AM

        Reverand King is certainly made the largest contribution to the mid 20th century American civil rights movement. No doubt about that. However, his Nobel Peace Prize is somewhat denigrated by time as Jimmy Carter, Barrack Obama and Yassar Arafat have also won them. The peace prize has become a matter of much skepticism among many who observe these matters myself included.

      • stex52 - May 30, 2013 at 11:58 AM

        Yeah. Stagflation, war escalation, enemies lists, price controls, shooting demonstrators, the “Southern Strategy”, Spiro Agnew, Chuck Colson, all that stuff.

      • skids003 - May 30, 2013 at 1:20 PM

        nolanwiffle, aceshigh thinks 1968 was the worst year in AMerican history? What about 1861, when the North and South went to war? I’d say that was worse, much worse, but since you admit to not living even in 1968, I think you need to study America history a little more.

      • aceshigh11 - May 30, 2013 at 1:20 PM


        I’m not putting Nixon’s election on the same plane…

        …he’d be too liberal for the DEMOCRATIC Party today, let alone the GOP.

        Yes, he accomplished many good things (EPA, opening China), but all that needs to be looked at through the filter of Watergate.

        Just listening to his Oval Office tapes is terrifying. The man was a bigoted, paranoid horror of epic proportions, and Watergate was much more than a “third rate burglary”.

        Yes, we’ve had other men in the White House who were horrible people (even his predecessor, LBJ, who likewise accomplished many incredible things, was a boorish, bullying, philandering creep as a person), but still…when you look at the promise of the ’60s, Nixon’s election pretty much put the kibosh on all that idealism.

      • aceshigh11 - May 30, 2013 at 1:29 PM

        Point taken, skids.

        At least SOMETHING noble came out of the Civil War, as horrific as it was.

        Two things I forgot to mention are Vietnam and Cambodia in my list of horrible things about that time period.

      • nolanwiffle - May 30, 2013 at 2:09 PM


        I can assure you that any “idealism” or “promise of the 60’s” was over by the time Richard Nixon was elected into office in theautumn of ’68.

        You should read Conrad Black’s biography of Richard Nixon….a fascinating polical figure.

      • skids003 - May 30, 2013 at 2:42 PM

        Yes aceshigh, the Union was preserved. Lincoln was a great President during the most turbulent time in our history, and gave his life to preserve our country. Contrary to what a lot of people think, just because people are from the South do not mean they still hate Lincoln. I for one am grateful he was around, and wish he could have served his second term. History now says the South would have been better off with him as President, and the country would have healed quicker.

  6. aceshigh11 - May 30, 2013 at 10:55 AM

    So following this logic…

    Shouldn’t the Red Sox have had their best year ever when Whitey Bulger was finally nabbed in 2011?


    Bulger was busted in June of ’11…and the Sox suffered the biggest collapse ever a few months later.

    Hmm…so this clearly means the Red Sox are intimately tied into the Boston Irish mafia underworld.

    That makes about as much as sense as this.

  7. Old Gator - May 30, 2013 at 11:01 AM

    Sensitive dependence on irrelevant conditions, popularly known as the Mothra effect.

    • stex52 - May 30, 2013 at 11:38 AM

      You mean like the giant Japanese B-movie moth? Is this some kind of chaos theory thing?

      • Old Gator - May 30, 2013 at 2:15 PM

        Yeah. The legitimate version is called the Butterfly Effect. When a spawrtsriter proposes a theory of science or history, it’s the Mothra effect – for big bullshit.

  8. bigleagues - May 30, 2013 at 11:01 AM

    Craig, I am surprised at you making more of a Bill Simmons observation than it merits. He is wildly entertaining. He often offers some valuable insight into the NBA, LA Clippers or Boston sports.

    BUT Simmons is THE LAST guy to himself seriously. He often says he still doesn’t understand how he got where he is from writing a blog.

    And when he makes statements like he did with Memphis, it’s simply to relate his perception of the nature of the tension in the room … not to make some broad philosophical statement or overarching observation of the importance of sports.

    Certainly it’s a stretch to say the MLK assassination is WHY the Memphis crowd is tense. But his observation offers the reader a sense of the situation as he observed it. The crowd was “ that tense ” to him.

    Figurative. Not literal, if you will.

    • Craig Calcaterra - May 30, 2013 at 11:03 AM

      He made an explicit link. He wasn’t making a comparison.

      • bigleagues - May 30, 2013 at 11:17 AM

        I dunno, we’re killing a guy over something he said off the cuff in a podcast.

        If had written it in a blogpost, had time to think it through, edit it, rewrite it and then still posted it, then I’m right with you on the condemnation bandwagon, but when he equivocates with this:

        the shooting kind of sets the tone

        then just a few sentences later makes the more definitive statement…

        And it starts from that shooting.

        I just assume it’s off the cuff and not something he has truly thought out.

      • Craig Calcaterra - May 30, 2013 at 11:23 AM

        I’m not “killing” him. I acknowledge that it was a small lapse. I’m making the point that the source of such lapses and the source of a lot of bad thinking about sports, stems from reading too much into them and taking them too seriously.

      • bigleagues - May 30, 2013 at 11:44 AM

        Fair enough. I’m with you on that point then.

      • Glenn - May 30, 2013 at 12:00 PM

        I enjoyed Bill Simmons when he used to actually write stuff, but one thing about him always bugged me. He genuinely believes in jinxs, curses, gambling hot streaks, etc. He’s religious about them. It pollutes his work enough that it comes through with idiotic ideas like the Memphis fan – MLK assassination thing.

  9. jea1978 - May 30, 2013 at 11:04 AM

    It’s the curse of Mikey Mo. One of the most memorable aspects of last year was Micheal Morse having “Take On Me” as his walk up song, and when it would cut out we would all continue to sing it into the high note. We traded Morse in the offseason, so the “Take On Me” thing should have died out. But no, the Nats, to the shock of me and a surprisingly few other Nats fans, kept “Take On Me” by tacking it on after “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”. Obviously a douche move by the Nats to trade the player but keep his thing. I think that’s the curse.

    • mybrunoblog - May 30, 2013 at 11:51 AM

      There are no curses in baseball. Only bad teams and bad owners. Just ask Red Sox fans….

      • jea1978 - May 30, 2013 at 12:31 PM

        I don’t know, the retired numbers thing, 9-4-1-8, in order, with the last world series the Red Sox had won starting on 09/05/18 is pretty creepy! It was enough to get the Sox to reorganize them in numerical order.

  10. historiophiliac - May 30, 2013 at 11:09 AM

    Gee, a history hating post. My favorite.

  11. DelawarePhilliesFan - May 30, 2013 at 11:14 AM

    He could be on to something.

    When you think of NFL futility, you think of….Buffalo Bills. Where William McKinley was assasinated

    • ralphdibny - May 30, 2013 at 12:02 PM

      And who benefited most from McKinley’s assassination? Teddy Roosevelt, a giant of a New Yorker. Think about it.

      • ltzep75 - May 30, 2013 at 1:58 PM

        Teddy Roosevelt, who stormed San Juan hill. Juan Gonzalez, steroid user. The Buffalo Bills are responsible for the steroids scandal in baseball.

        /DaVinci Code’d.

  12. nolanwiffle - May 30, 2013 at 11:27 AM

    “Billie Jean King schooling Bobby Riggs” transcended entertainment and has real meaning? It was a made for TV event whereby a 29 year old professional women’s tennis player took on (and beat) a 55 year old former men’s professional tennis player.

    I’ll grant you that in 1973 the Women’s Rights movement was raging and the match was even dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes”, but c’mon…….real meaning?

    • malbrecht4 - May 30, 2013 at 11:51 AM

      Bobby didn’t get schooled. He got rich and laughed all the way to the bank.

  13. nolanwiffle - May 30, 2013 at 11:27 AM

    “Billie Jean King schooling Bobby Riggs” transcended entertainment and has real meaning? It was a made for TV event whereby a 29 year old professional women’s tennis player took on (and beat) a 55 year old former men’s professional tennis player.

    I’ll grant you that in 1973 the Women’s Rights movement was raging and the match was even dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes”, but c’mon…….real meaning?

  14. chacochicken - May 30, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    The problems started when the east coast of North America emerged from the Mesozoic Sea.

  15. professormaddog31 - May 30, 2013 at 11:45 AM

    OK…so I grew up right outside of Memphis, lived there until I was thirteen, and I still consider myself a citizen of M-Town even though I haven’t lived there in about twenty years. So, forgive me when I start saying “we”.

    It’s not the MLK assassination, it’s everything. It’s being known as the murder capital of the South for decades. It’s having a damn pyramid eyesore next to the mighty Mississippi standing empty and the mayors doing jack all about it. It’s having contributed so much to the world – really good BBQ, W.C. Handy, Cybil Shepherd, Penny Hardaway, Justin Timberlake, Elvis! – and still being considered second-rate to other cities even in the same state.

    We got a chip on our shoulder, because it always seems that when something good happens to us, something extra bad’s gonna happen. It’s deeply embedded in our psyche, and most of us who have lived there, no matter our race or socio-economic state, feel that way. We are perpetual underdogs and for some reason, we can’t imagine ourselves getting to the next level – we feel that no matter what, it’s going to go sour.

    That’s the real reason. It’s not sports related, it’s not MLK related, it’s not Elvis dying on the crapper related. It’s a fog of depression that has lasted for generations over what is, truly, an amazingly beautiful city and group of citizens.

    So bite me, Bill Simmons.

    • nderdog - May 30, 2013 at 12:18 PM

      Wait, did you really just use Justin Timberlake as a positive contribution?

      • nolanwiffle - May 30, 2013 at 12:47 PM

        ….and Anfernee Hardaway?

    • mybrunoblog - May 30, 2013 at 2:16 PM

      Interesting thing about the MLK assasination and most of the other meaningful assassinations and murders. JFK, RFK, Abe Lincoln, John Lennon, William Mckinley etc. All of these men were killed by people who weren’t from the cities where they were murdered. You can’t hold a city responsible for some nuts jobs who traveled there to commit murder.
      Free Memphis !

  16. skarfacci - May 30, 2013 at 11:57 AM

    Bill Simmons is an idiot for even suggesting that tongue and cheek. I know it’s just for fun but it’s not funny & quite honestly to put MLK and a basketball game in the same breath is ridiculous.

  17. malbrecht4 - May 30, 2013 at 12:05 PM

    Serious question. Can anybody recommend a good baseball blog? One where the bloggers actually understand the game of baseball. Info about roster moves and the games maybe some scouting reports

    • gunpowderjones - May 30, 2013 at 1:42 PM

      You should start your own! It would probably be awesome!

    • clemente2 - May 30, 2013 at 2:46 PM

      As every team has at least one blog that meets your standards, and many have several, and as there are numerous web sites (don’t know if they qualify as blogs for you) that cover baseball in general in the form you claim to desire, and as you have posted this same moronic thing in several different threads here,

      the answer is “No”, there are no baseball blogs which discuss baseball which you would understand.

      • malbrecht4 - May 31, 2013 at 9:52 AM

        I’ve posted this twice. The other being on the red haired thread. If that is what you mean by “several” It’s obvious that you don’t know what the word means. I know that every team has one. I don’t want to go to 30 different sites everyday. I also am aware that their are many sites that cover baseball in general. I was asking if there are any GOOD ones. If that is a “moronic thing” I don’t think you know what that word means either. I appreciate the effort though.

  18. sleepyirv - May 30, 2013 at 12:38 PM

    This is a half-thought on some podcast. It would be one thing if Bill Simmons wrote a column with this as his central thesis but as an off-the-cuff remark, it’s certainly not worth talking about. If this was a half-thought that hint at something darker- if Simmons said something racist I an see why people would want to discuss it. But what he said isn’t very incendiary. This isn’t worth analyzing this to death. And I certainly don’t see how it relates to baseball.

    I’m not a fan of Simmons, but there’s nothing worth discussing here.

  19. jimmerg31385 - May 30, 2013 at 12:44 PM

    Stop hating. You wish you were bill Simmons.

  20. tvguy22 - May 30, 2013 at 2:30 PM

    Beyond stupid. But hey, I clicked on it.

  21. atlrod - May 30, 2013 at 2:56 PM

    I’m not at all going to defend a comment that, when I heard it, made me laugh and say, “That’s stupid.” But I am a little curious about how you seemed to turn it into a blog post (rightfully) critiquing something that didn’t really have anything to do with the stupid comment. Simmons’ point was that a historical event has affected the ethos of a city, its self-interpretation, to the degree that even when something like a sporting event happens, they have an immediate emotional reaction that might be different than other cities. Your point is that sportswriters tend to embellish the importance of sports (which I agree with you about and detest). Those are not two conversant lines of thought that stand in opposition to one another, in my opinion. Simmons was, if anything, emphasizing the importance of a historical event, not the game being played. His point being that the event was so monumental that even something as asinine as a game could be even ever so slightly affected by it. Again, I thought the statement was actually stupid. And I think you’re right to critique sports reporting for the stupid things that you mentioned. I just don’t think this was an instance of what you’re describing. It was just a generally dumb thing to say. (Like, for instance, wouldn’t EVERY home crowd watching their team stumbling to a likely 0-3 series tally get really edgy? Was their tension REALLY in any way influenced by the MLK assassination?) Basically, I don’t get the structure of your argument. I agree with the components though. And I’m done. Enough words have been put in an internet comment box for one day.

  22. boomerzdad - May 30, 2013 at 7:28 PM

    People laugh at the thought of the MLK assassination having a effect on Memphis. I was there when it happened and the negative affect it had was amazing and it continues to this day.

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