On this week’s episode of “Bodega Boys,” Desus Nice and The Kid Mero deftly summed up the big problem with trying to get your sports-fix by watching the “classic” games that TV networks are showing during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Shoutout to all the Raptors fans,” Desus said. “Because… they’re watching, like, last year’s Finals, where the Raptors won. And they learned the sad thing about sports. Rewatching some shit is boring. It ain’t the same.”
“Yo, it’s not,” Mero said. “Unless it’s some wild Game 7, game-winner type shit…and you know what’s gonna happen in a clutch situation. I don’t wanna see some [guys] winning series, 4-1, they win the last game by 38 points. I’m like, why am I watching this?”
As someone who has watched Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS—all 16 innings of it—on multiple occasions over the years, this is true and valid. That game, incredible as it was, has just about no appeal in March of 2020. What’s needed isn’t reliving good memories. What the sports soul craves is something new.
“You already know the outcome, so it’s not the same,” Desus said. “When you were watching it at home, and you were like mad nervous, like, ‘Yo, are they gonna win, what’s going on,’ it was crazy. But now you know they’re gonna win.”
It’s true. It’s not that we’re missing sports. Sports are always there. If I miss football in the spring or summer, do I fire up the last couple of minutes of Super Bowl XLII? You bet. But this isn’t about missing football or any other sport. It’s about missing the uncertainty, the drama, the nervous feeling.
I got a little bit of the good stuff last Friday when I flipped to MSG and they were showing a Rangers-Wild game from last month. I paid no attention to this game when it was played so I was unaware of the result. The problem was, a bug at the top of the screen said “BREADMAN FRIDAY,” so it was obvious that Artemi Panarin was going to be the hero, and sure enough, he assisted on the game-tying goal with 1:06 left in the third period, then scored the shootout winner.
So, I haven’t been watching a lot of sports rebroadcasts lately, because even when you don’t know, you kind of know.
What I have been watching is the YouTube channel of veteran announcer Josh Lewin, PlayByPlayOfAnythingAtAll. There, Lewin has been performing dramatic calls of everyday events, from completing a jigsaw puzzle of dogs to microwaving a taquito.
Lewin is the voice of UCLA football and basketball, and also calls some games for the Red Sox radio network. Based in California now, he previously had been the TV play-by-play man for the Tigers, Rangers, and Mets, and already was doing some unusual play-by-play on his podcast, The Throwback League, in which he lends his voice and imagination to games, simulated by a computer, between some of baseball’s best teams of the past half-century. The virtual tournament’s first run scored features Lewin’s narration of Deion Sanders, with 1992 National League champion Atlanta, pimping a home run he hit off Catfish Hunter of the 1974 Oakland A’s.
“When I first had the idea, it sounded so rudimentary, that you run a sim of the game, and the algorithm tells you what the play-by-play is,” Lewin told Deadspin. “You know, Deion Sanders hit a two-run home run. I like the challenge of what I used to read about: the guys of the ‘30s and ‘40s who had to recreate road games. Ronald Reagan did it, and Vin Scully did it, and Ernie Harwell did it. Our generation has never had to do that, so it’s exploring new space, and I thought, ‘let me see what that would be like,’ and do the whole theater of the mind thing and see what that feels like.”
What could have been just an exercise in reading and imagination instead became something powered by Lewin going down YouTube rabbit holes to study players’ batting stances and quirks, and remember details of stadiums like Oakland before the “Mt. Davis” football seats obstructed the view beyond the outfield. The result is a podcast that has a feel of authenticity, despite the entire premise being a series of time-warped simulations.
Lewin’s YouTube channel happens to feature promo for The Throwback League, something that Lewin had actually forgotten was still online. It’s a sort of resume reel that begins with two minutes of highlights before a screen comes up that reads, “FOX / Full Inning / Rangers @ Twins / 2010 / 20:00.” He had needed to send that video to someone, and posting it on a then-otherwise unused YouTube channel was the best way.
This was exactly what my sports soul needed.
It was a solid matchup of two teams on their way to division titles, featured some familiar faces (even if Carl Pavano’s had that godawful mustache), and, most importantly, was a game I knew nothing about. All I knew was that there was 20 minutes of baseball here, and damn if I wasn’t on the edge of my seat when Vladimir Guerrero stepped in to face Pavano with a runner on and two out.
In 2010, I would not have given this game a second thought. In 2020, one inning of it is somehow manna from sports heaven.
“Maybe it’s the genius of Cracker Jack,” Lewin said. “You didn’t know what was going to come out of the prize. The genius of a fortune cookie. The cookies themselves kind of suck, but the fun of it is you never know if it’s gonna be something that hits with you, or if it’s something that’s complete nonsense.”
Lewin recalls buying creamsicles “with the mystery plastic figure under the stick” from ice cream man came by as a kid and licking all the ice cream off in anticipation.
“That element of mystery, I think, that’s what we all miss about live sports right now,” he says. “It’s the unknown. As much as it’s absolutely super fun to relive a memory, a memory is a hardened object. You either know that this is going to be a pleasant memory or that you’re gonna hate it, but you’ve seen this movie before. So, it’s not that we don’t enjoy — I’ve seen Step Brothers 57, 58 times, easy—I can recite every joke. There is a joy to that, but there’s nothing like seeing it for the first time. That’s the thing that’s taken from us right now.”
As entertaining as it is to listen to Lewin call the simulated games of “The Throwback League” and get an algorithm’s answer to some interesting hypothetical matchups, it was his forgotten reel of a nondescript decade-old Rangers-Twins game that really returned the suspense of the unknown that comes with live sports. It was one inning of a random game, but with no possibility of what Desus called the “wild snitch” of the remote’s “info” button. It’s perfect, really, experiencing the joy of the unknown again in a totally unexpected way.