What if Bucky Dent’s long fly ball in the 1978 American League East playoff game hadn’t cleared the Green Monster at Fenway Park? What if John Paxson had missed the 3-pointer at the end of game 6 in the 1993 NBA Finals? What if Carli Lloyd had been injured in the final of the 2015 Women’s World Cup?
Sports fans are particularly good at asking what if questions. Sports, after all, are full of counterfactual possibilities replete with drama.
“It’s more as if we’ve had it thrust upon us,” says Mike Pesca, host of the Slate podcast The Gist and an NPR sports commentator. “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. 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 8 years ago. That’s kind of the engine of sports.”
Mike Pesca assembled the new book titled Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs In Sports History. In an interview, he explained some of the book’s 31 different scenarios written by 31 sportswriters.
On Jason Gay’s essay ‘What if football had been deemed too boring in 1899?’
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. …
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.
On Shira Springer’s essay ‘What if the United States had boycotted Hitler’s Olympics?’ on the 1936 Berlin games which made Jesse Owens a cultural icon
They did [make Owens an icon], 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 can 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.
On Paul Snyder’s essay ‘What if a blimp full of money had exploded over world track [and field] headquarters in 1952?’
Well, one scenario is that the battles we saw on the [basketball] hardwood between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell very well could have taken place on the track. … What if this all played out mano-a-mano, Russell against Chamberlain, on the track? And 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 nerd-dom, and is also the things inherently that stops it from being a huge sport in America. So it’s kind of a nice contemplation on that level. …
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.
Tori Whitley and Jessica Smith produced and edited this story for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for Web.