A Sporting Past, Present, & Future(s) | Gimme Schalter №3

Ty Schalter
11 min readAug 27, 2021

I’ve only been hated on-sight by a bunch of strangers once. Only one time in my blessed, privileged life have I ever been made to feel utterly unwelcome the instant I set foot in a space because the people there saw I was the wrong kind of person.

And I loved it.

It was the summer of 2011 — June 22nd, to be precise. Or maybe it was the 23rd by that point in the evening, who can say? As far as evenings go, it wasn’t very precise.

I was wandering east down Haight Street in San Francisco, trying to make my way back to my hotel in the Financial District with enough time left to get some sleep before I had to get back up and attend my fourth straight day of all-day training. It was a business trip, after all. And as the hustling young father of a figure skater, a hockey player and a gymnast, the $50 per-diem alotted on my company card comprised the entirety of my traveling budget.

I needed food so badly at that point that my search for a restaurant had only two qualifications: A) open, and B) takes American Express. A hole-in-the-wall pizza shop appeared to meet both qualifications, and a couple big slices sounded like heaven.

I can’t remember if it was called “Mythic Pizza” in 2011, but this was the spot.

I stepped inside and saw it absolutely packed with people wearing green. A hush, followed by a rising “OhhhhHHHHH” let me know I’d somehow picked the wrongest place in the world. People started talking, yelling, singing, I couldn’t understand. They were getting up from their tables, walking my way, jumping and dancing around me in a circle, waving Mexican flags.

You see, I was wearing my U.S. men’s national soccer-team jersey, bought during the prior World Cup and packed in my suitcase just for this night. A guy my age wearing the green home shirt of Mexico’s El Tri got in my face and started running epic smack, compatriots still circle-dancing and shouting around us. Both their team and mine had won their CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal games that evening, setting up a head-to-head final for the trophy.

Hours before, I had sprinted/jogged/taken the Muni from IBM’s offices to the Haight, planning on catching as much of the U.S./Panama match as I could at noted soccer pub Danny Coyle’s. I got there just after the guy whose replica jersey I was wearing, Clint Dempsey, had scored what would be the only goal.

Upon learning Danny Coyle’s did not take American Express — and therefore, I hadn’t a penny to spend — fellow fans simply took turns buying me pints all night. We watched the Giants game, we watched Mexico beat Honduras, we watched each other make fools of ourselves. At last call, the bartender just poured me a free one.

I’d been a diehard sports fan all my life, but that evening was beyond anything I’d known. I’d experienced instant tribal love and hate like that, but not like that. As all that Guinness soaked into a couple oven-cooked slices of pie, I turned left onto Market Street thinking about how special this game, these fans, this rivalry was.

REVIEW: “The Future According to Baseball”

Clearly, I enjoy mixing future tech with old-school traditions

If you asked me to pick a single piece of writing that ignited my young imagination more than any other, I’d name “Sports in the Year 2001,” a fantastic bit of first-person futurism done by the staff of Sports Illustrated back in July 1991. My not-quite-ten-year-old brain’s circuits blew out on practically every sentence: eight-foot-wide high-definition TVs, President Dan Quayle, the Florida Marlins as a concept.

So when the editors of The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball offered me a review copy, my not-quite-40-year-old brain’s circuits blew out.

The Society for American Baseball Research (or “SABR,” as in “Sabermetrics”) usually themes its annual journal around the region where their annual convention is being held. But this year’s The National Pastime is a collection of articles, essays, and flash-fiction stories exploring what baseball will, or could, look like in 2040 and beyond — with epistolary press releases from future Major League Baseball commissioners mixed in.

Edited by Marty Resnick, a futurist and analyst, and Cecelia M. Tan, an SFF author and SABR’s publications director, The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball boasts a table of contents with names that will catch the eye of both baseball and science-fiction diehards (although the Dusty Baker cited here is a young TV sports anchor who was named after that Dusty Baker).

The journal starts as you’d expect: with the data. Having polled SABR members with 16 wisdom-of-crowds style questions about what issues and technologies might impact baseball by 2040, they set the table for a smorgasbord of future possibilities.

A plurality of respondees, 34 percent, named “climate change” as the most significant factor impacting baseball over the next two decades, and the theme runs through the anthology. From the opening piece on futuristic uniforms to casual mentions of overhead weather shields and Dr. Lawrence Rocks’s rigorous examinations of how climate will impact every aspect of the game, there’s no escaping the environment reality that’s already forcing MLB to adapt.

Similarly, I enjoyed the Q&A Katie Krall of the Cincinnati Reds had with the L.A. Dodgers’ Janet Marie Smith and Red Sox minor-league coach Bianca Smith about the future of women in baseball. In terms of fans in the stands, gender parity is already here. Women have also already made inroads to every off-field position in the sport, including general manager (though here, as everywhere she’s cited as an icon of the game’s progress, Miami Marlins GM Kim Ng is mentioned with the caveat that “everyone knows she should have been a GM years ago”).

On the field is a different story, and that’s where the stories come in.

Tan’s “Signs of the Times” was a delight, a flash-fiction peice from the first-person perspective of a female relief pitcher making her big-league debut. Clever worldbuilding of future baseball tech and believable personal relationships between the players combine for a punchy ending.

In a futurist anthology, a focus on firsts (first woman, first trans person, first MLB team in Europe, etc.) is impossible to avoid. But Tan wisely makes protagonist Sally the first woman to pitch in the AL, including a throwaway line about the majors’ gender barrier having been broken in the National League years before. It keeps the story’s edge internal — and more about the action on first than the hoopla around first.

When I saw alt-history titan Harry Turtledove’s name under “Under Coogan’s Bluff,” I knew we’d be looking back as well as forward. Turtledove didn’t disappoint, offering the REAL answer to Internet-prompt questions about what we’d do with a time machine: put our sports teams up against history’s greats.

The 2040 World Series-champion Kansas City Royals lose a coin toss against the 1905 New York Giants, and so have to go back in time to a smoggy, dirty New York City. They play with giant wooden bats and tiny leather gloves, and face fans and competitors hurling epithets we don’t say in 2040 (thankfully, Turtledove elides them in 2021). The sense of time and place is excellent, as is the first-person description of the action. When the protagonist steps into the batter’s box against Christy Mathewson, we know he knows what it means, too.

Resnick’s “The ‘Natural’” gave us a very quick taste of what it would be like to play the game with artificial limbs; I was hoping for a little bit more on that front. Questions around prosthetics, anti-aging tech and pre-emptive surgeries (let’s just go ahead and give every 19-year-old pitcher an unbreakable ulnar collateral ligament, yes?) seem very close to needing answers.

Several pieces dove deep into VR, exploring current uses for training, future uses for broadcasting games, and even simulating playing baseball anywhere, against anyone. Cathy Hackl and Nate Nelson’s closing piece shows how we might not be able to put a slugger from 2040 up in a 1905 hotel with strict anti-butterfly-effect rules — but you or I might be able to step into the batter’s box against any Hall of Famer there’s pitch-tracking data for.

Futurism is hard, of course, and projecting how quick technology will progress down any given path necessarily means getting stuff wrong. The first future press release from the future Commissioner of baseball (which were broadly delightful, and packed full of easter eggs for baseball nerds) mentioned that the Cleveland Indians changed their name to the Cleveland Commodores in 2022. Except, well, they changed their name to the Cleveland Guardians a couple weeks ago [ALSO: I sure hope my Detroit Tigers won’t get realigned into a division with the Texas Rangers, what a gross road trip]. I also loved that James Breaux went there with his novel excerpt about playing on Mars, but I’m currently quite pessimistic that we’ll have that level of functional society there any time soon.

The greatest strength of this book, for me, was how all the pieces were kept tight. That futurist issue of Sports Illustrated had only the one feature article, plus a kids-these-days column griping about declining stadium attendance. The Future According to Baseball is packed with great pieces in a variety of forms, from imagining future baseball cards to a meditation on baseball’s connection to mid-20th-century Space Age excitement. Unlike some fiction anthologies anchored by one big, meaty piece, there’s plenty of everything for everyone in here.

Well, everyone who was enough of a sports geek to read Sports Illustrated when they were nine, I guess.

If you fit in to that slice of Venn diagram where “sports” and “imagination” overlap, I know you’ll love this book.

The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball is available in paperback from the Nebraska University Press, as well as Amazon (with an e-book edition soon forthcoming).

Everything awesome

People who don’t know anything about women, sports, or womens’ sports had spent months pointing toward weightlifter Laurel Hubbard’s upcoming dominance of the Tokyo 2020 Games as the end of women’s sports. Instead, she didn’t complete a single lift.

Katelyn Burns, who has written many great explainers about the ignorant, fact-free panic over trans women playing women’s sports, has written another one — and you should read it.

I’m late to Kahlief, having found him last August through this incredible interview with Jeff Green. But “Spawn on Me” has been viewing the world of video games through a lens of Blackness for eight years and 399 podcast episodes, and this 400th was a banger.

Together with guest Kotaku editor-in-chief Patricia Hernandez, they talk about all the issues inherent in being a working writer online in 2021: Twitter’s combination of information overload and context collapse, serving an audience that not only doesn’t share your values but broadly has no idea what journalism actually is, the wild asymmetry of social-media ‘offense’ versus punishment (especially for marginalized writers), etc.

Obviously, they focus on video-game media and how Kotaku is approaching these problems — but the discussion applies to any writer, editor, or outlet trying to do good work online.

Taylor is an already-celebrated young author getting more celebrated by the minute. His funny-as-he-is-clever online presence has always made his gifts of observation and description obvious — but it’s also obscured his Iowa-Writer’s-Workshop-to-Booker-Prize-shortlist literary chops and acheivements.

In this essay, he explores the morality of storytelling — how truthful are we when we write? How honest are we about our world and the humans in it? Do we have the courage to let our characters speak for themselves, or do we dub in our own voice? Are our pretend people real people, or are they actors parroting our Sorkin-y dialog on sets in front of a live Twitter audience?

My in-progress novel Codex 17 is a young adult fantasy, and the goals and stakes for YA are different than grown-up litfic. But this is something I’ve wrestled with as I revise.

It’s good, even moral, to tell children stories with morals. It’s good, even moral, to make sure all kids get to feel represented and included in the fiction they consume. But teaching teens that all Good People always act Good, and all Bad People always act Bad? Or worse, that anyone who ever does A Bad is Bad, and anyone who ever does A Good is Good?

That’s not fiction. That’s a lie.

The Underdogs Of War

The 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup didn’t end happily for the U.S. Men’s National Team. There were bright spots, for sure — the international career high-water mark of “American Prodigy” Freddy Adu, the emergence of future captain Michael Bradley — but the promised Mexican smackdown arrived. Losing the final on home soil in front of a California crowd that overwhelmingly supported the visitors was a tough look.

I started following soccer for real during the 2010 World Cup, by which time Dempsey, Landon Donovan, and the other wonderkids of the 1990s had already won several famous victories over our neighbor to the south. But the inferiority complex seemed to be baked into our program, our fanbase, even our media. Mexico is a “real” soccer country, the thinking goes, and we’ll always be the underdogs against them (even when we aren’t).

For Sunday night’s 2021 Gold Cup final, history was repeating itself: Mexico were the pre-tournament favorites, there to collect their rightful trophy in front of a pro-Mexico Las Vegas crowd. We were their opponent, having caught a couple of lucky breaks along the way. But this time there was no Dempsey, no Donovan, no superstar to rely on. Due to the vagaries of international scheduling in COVID times, none of our best players were there.

Take our best possible starting lineup, and remove all those players from the pool. Take our next best possible starting lineup, and ditch all but like maybe four guys. Then fill out the rest of the team. That was the squad we brought to this tournament. Our goal wasn’t to win, but to get some quality minutes for some players trying to earn more minutes when the “A” squad is assembled for World Cup qualifiers.

Mexico brought their “A” squad.

My 15-year-old son hasn’t watched much of the USMNT since they failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup — and to be honest, I haven’t watched that much either. Head coach Gregg Berhalter was hired in the wake of that disaster, and over the three years he’s been in charge he’s never stopped feeling like a placeholder for the next real head coach.

But my son and I sat down and watched 117 minutes of up-and-down, back-and-forth, nail-biting soccer before Berhalter’s C-plus team scored the goal that toppled the giants:

“Honestly, Dad,” my son admitted in the post-midnight glow of our extended celebration, “I was planning on watching the first ten minutes with you and then just kind of checking in from time to time. But that was riveting.

Our family hasn’t watched much of the Olympics. Besides our moral qualms about the Olympics in general (and these Games in particular), making time in the wee hours of the morning to watch Americans compete in a bunch of events where anything less than gold would be failure doesn’t hold much appeal. Neither does a pre-taped highlight package of stuff I saw on Twitter 13 hours before.

But the USMNT lifting that trophy was everything I love about sports — about this sport, and this rivalry. About passing down our love (and venomless “hate”) of teams through generations. Most of all, it was just great to cheer for an American squad that truly represented America at its best: diverse, energetic, relentless, and joyous.



Ty Schalter

Professional writer & talker (@FiveThirtyEight, etc.). Sports things & nerd stuff. Rather cleverer than most men; mistakes correspondingly huger. He/him.