So I just watched Source Code, which I liked quite a bit more than I expected. Based on my Movie Plus-Minus — which, damn, I still need to patent* — I’d give it a plus-1.5 star rating, which is very good (I expected a 1.5 or 2 movie, and it was probably a 3 or 3.5 out of 5 stars).
*I did put an explanation for the plus-minus in the pages section of the blog.
Not to give away anything you don’t already get in the trailer — in Source Code this super-secret government agency is trying to catch a bad guy, and because of some vague scientific breakthrough that is only ridiculous if you think about it, they can send Jake Gyllenhaal back to the scene of a previous bombing for eight minutes. And they can keep sending him back, over and over again, eight minutes every time, though something quizzically called the “Source Code.” For some reason, he doesn’t just watch the past — like Harry Potter when he goes into the Pensieve — but he can actually change things. The Gyllenhaal character thinks he’s really changing the past. The scientist explains he’s only changing the source code. And so on. A lot of it doesn’t hold up well to even mildly critical analysis, but it’s a lot of fun to watch, and I’m strongly considering naming Michelle Monaghan as my top Hollywood crush.*
*I kind of feel I need to change things up: I’ve had Natalie Portman as much Hollywood Crush for too long (and Wynona Ryder was there for perhaps even longer). Meanwhile my wife Margo changes her crush every three minutes — it’s Daniel Craig … no, it’s Ewan McGregor … no, it’s Jude Law … not it’s that Horatio Hornblower guy … no, it’s Colin Firth … no, it’s some British actor I’ve never heard of … she’s just spending a lot more time on this than I am. So, I might just switch to Michelle Monaghan to keep her guessing.
Anyway, the whole idea of being able to go back and change the past made me wonder: What would be my Top 10 Sports Code moments in sports? That is to say: What would I go back and change.
There are only two conditions that I just invented for Sports Code.
(1) You can’t change a sporting RESULT. That is to say, you can’t go back and have Scott Norwood MAKE the field goal or have Michael Jordan MISS the shot or have that Butler kid make the half course shot. You cannot make Bill Buckner field the ground ball cleanly (though you could try to convince Red Sox manager John McNamara to put Dave Stapleton a defensive replacement). Those are results, and they happened, and they cannot be changed (in my completely made-up scenario). No, you can only change something tangible, something that might make a difference (and remember you only have eight minutes). I only bend this rule once, in my very first Sports Code, but it’s for a noble cause.
(2) You can’t go back and create a whole new ending. That’s a slightly tricky concept, but here’s what I mean: For it to be a true Sports Code moment, you need to leave the ending open-ended. So, as much as you might want to do this, you can’t have JIm Joyce make the right call so that Armando Galarraga gets his perfect game. Because, in that case, he GETS THE PERFECT GAME, and the story is over. That’s a closed ending. The point here is to change something and then let a new ending unfold naturally.
I hope this will make more sense as we go along.
My Top 10 Sports Code changes:
1. Browns-Broncos playoff game, 1988.
Change: I would tell Ernest Byner to HANG ON TO THE BALL.
— This is my cheat — I’m really, sort of changing a sporting result by preventing Byner from fumbling. But, not exactly: I’m not saying that I would make Byner hold on to the ball. I”m just saying I would warn him where Jeremiah Castille would be coming from and hope he holds on. Yeah, it’s a cheat. But I don’t care.
Many people forget this, but if Ernest Byner scores a touchdown there, the Browns would have only TIED the game. People get that wrong all the time because the Broncos won that game 38-33, so the assumption is that Byner’s touchdown would have given the Browns a 40-38 lead. But that isn’t right. The Broncos took a safety AFTER the fumble.
That was such an amazing football game. The Broncos took a 21-3 lead, and there seemed no way the Browns could come back. But Bernie Kosar, in an amazing performance, threw four touchdowns in the second half. Byner was a man possessed — he had almost 200 yards from scrimmage and scored two touchdowns. I’ve always thought it incredibly sad that he was the one to fumble, and that so many remember him for that fumble. He was remarkable that whole game, and he didn’t deserve to have it end that way. I would have loved to see him punch it into the end zone there.
Realistically: If Byner DID score, the Broncos would have had a minute to score, and they had John Elway, so the ending probably would have been a different kind of heartache for us Browns fans. But I would love to go back, change the Byner part, and see what happens.
2. Royals-Cardinals World Series game Game 6, 1985
Change: Go back and convince Don Denkinger to make right call.
— There has always been a mystery about the 1985 World Series … only much of America has never seen it as a mystery. The conventional wisdom is that when Don Denkinger called Kansas City’s Jorge Orta safe to lead off the ninth inning — with the Cardinals ahead 1-0 — that he singlehandedly cost the Cardinals the game and, eventually the World Series. This is why Denkinger was treated horribly at the time — death threats and so on — and why even now people think of him for that call and think the Cardinals were robbed of that World Series.
But look at the play-by-play and tell me what you see:
— Orta single (on Denkinger’s bad call)
— Steve Balboni single (Onix Concepcion pinch runs)
— Jim Sundberg failed sac bunt (Orta out at third)
— Wild pitch movies Balboni and Sundberg to 2nd and 3rd
— Hal McRae intentionally walked
— Dane Iorg two-run single scores Concepcion and Sundberg.
See, so, here’s the thing: The only out the Cardinals got after the Orta play was an out given to them on the sacrifice bunt. The Royals were miracle workers that year. They had reached the playoffs with, essentially, an offense called “George Brett.” They had come back from a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS against Toronto. They had beaten the Cardinals 6-1 in an elimination game back in St. Louis. Brett and Frank White have told me many times that Orta play or not the Royals WERE going to win that game, that they knew it, that there was magic in that team. They had pinch-hitters like McRae on the bench. They were at home. And the Cardinals were freaking out. Jack Clark dropped a pop-up. A wild pitch was thrown. And so on. I have never bought into the idea that all this happened because the Cardinals were “upset” by the Denkinger call. That was one heck of a soft team if that was the case.
We will never know what might have happened, of course. And it would be wonderful to know. Don Denkinger was too good an umpire to be remembered for that one play. And the 1985 Royals were too good a story to be reduced to one mistaken safe call with nobody out in the ninth of a 1-0 game.
3. Try to convince Tiger Woods to keep his life together.
— I’m sure I couldn’t have done this for many reasons including the fact that Tiger Woods doesn’t give ANYONE eight minutes.
But we will always wonder, won’t we? We are coming up on two years of Tiger Woods not winning, and there are many factors: Health; age; swing changes; putting woes; the emergence of players who refuse to be as intimidated by him and so on. There are very smart golf analysts who remain convinced that Tiger Woods will yet re-emerge, perhaps the way Jack Nicklaus did in 1980, that he will still make his run at what has become the holy grail of golf: Jack’s 18 majors.
I have for a long time now felt like Tiger won’t get there and might not get much closer than he is now. Either way how can you not wonder how golf history might have changed had he avoided the tabloid meltdown of 2009? Nobody was ever a better golfer than Tiger Woods from 1997 to 2008. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever being that dominant again. He won four majors in a row. He won the Masters by 12, the U.S. Open by 15 (!), the British Open by eight. He went 3-0 in major playoffs, winning the last of those on one leg at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
It’s an unprecedented resume, and though nobody can possibly keep up that level of near-perfection forever, it does seem true that so much of what Tiger Woods was as a golf was wrapped up in his image and persona. I will never forget how surprised, and even touched, I was at Tiger’s return. He seemed honestly worried about getting booed. He seemed honestly nervous about the reaction to him. I suppose that’s how most people would feel, but Woods had never given any indication of being like most people. He seemed unshakeable. He seemed robotic. But going through all that clearly shook him. Maybe, with all the injury problems, he would have gone through precisely the same slump even without the Thanksgiving crash and the endless parade of tabloid rumors. Maybe he would have won four majors in the last two years. We won’t ever know … unless we get that Source Code, and I can get past the not-yet-canned Steve Williams.
4. Cubs vs. Marlins, Game 6, 2003
Change: Tell Steve Bartman not to reach for the baseball.
The Chicago Cubs fascinate me. I’m planning on writing something quite a bit longer on this subject. But their sad baseball history — as often as it has been written, as often as if has been discussed, as cliche as it has become — absolutely blows my mind. How is is possible for one of baseball’s most prominent teams, in America’s third-largest city, to have not BEEN in the World Series since the end of World War II? What strange mixture of incompetence, bad luck and general failure can make something that titanic possible?
Of course, when something that titanic DOES happen, we tend to fall back on curses. It’s in our nature. So we have the Billy Goat. The Ex-Cub Factor. And, of course, Bartman. I have rarely felt worse for anyone than I felt for Steve Bartman. Here’s a guy doing exactly what 99.6% of all American baseball fans would do — what a whole bunch of people AROUND him did — reach for a foul ball. He does this with the Cubs up on Florida 3-0, with the Cubs five outs away from that oh-so-precious World Series, with Wrigley Field echoing in celebration.
He reaches for the ball — does not reach over the railing, from the best replays I’ve seen — and Cubs left fielder Moises Alou leaps for it at the same time, and Bartman deflects it away. Alou in the heat of the moment kind of acts like a jerk — he slams his glove, makes a scene, all that. And then the Cubs utterly and completely collapse, allow eight runs, the lowlight of the disgrace coming when Alex Gonzalez botches a seemingly easy double play ground ball. The Cubs also lose Game 7.
And people blame Steve Bartman.
There was a lot of emotion then, and I suspect that most people in Chicago don’t blame Bartman now. Some might, but most don’t … cooler heads and all that. But I wish I could Source Code that moment, convince Bartman not to reach for the ball. Then we could find out two things:
A. Does Alou really catch that ball? I saw replays in the excellent 30 for 30 on Bartman that suggest Alou does catch it. But reenacting the play on video and actually making a leaping catch on a foul ball in the stands with the Cubs five outs away from the World Series are two different things. Moises Alou was a fine player, but he wasn’t exactly Paul Blair in the outfield.
B. Do the Cubs collapse anyway? As proven, that wasn’t exactly the sturdiest of baseball teams. If that team was destined to melt down, they still would have had time to do it.
More than anything I wish I could do it so that Steve Bartman would be free. He didn’t deserve any of it.
5. Tell the Red Sox owner Harry Frazee to forget about the show “My Lady Friends” and hang on to Babe Ruth.
How much would that have changed? How much different would baseball have been had the Red Sox kept Ruth? Would it have just been a small change that affected a few years in the 1920s? Or would that have lingered. Would the Red Sox, not the Yankees, have had the dominating history? Would Bucky Dent’s fly ball have caught a windstream and died at the warning track? Would the Yankees have this long history of near success?
Probably not. But it would be fun to know, wouldn’t it? Incidentally, most people think the Broadway Show that Frazee financed with Ruth money was called “No No Nanette.” But Leigh Montville in this most excellent book “Big Bam” reported that it was a show called My Lady Friends, which if I remember right was sort of an early incarnation of No No Nanette.
6. Eradicate the 1994 baseball strike (of course)
Would Tony Gwynn have hit .400? Would Matt Williams or Ken Griffey have broken Maris’ home run record years before McGwire and Sosa? Would the Expos have won the World Series (and if so, would they still be in Montreal right now?).
And so on.
7. Convince Raiders coach Art Shell to not call the play where Bo Jackson blew out his hip.
Someone asked on Twitter about whether a healthy and singularly focused Bo Jackson would have been a better baseball player or a better football player. It’s a great question, and one without a definitive answer. I honestly believe that Bo was beginning to really get baseball when he got hurt. For the first time, he had an above-average on-base percentage (.342). He, of course, had immense power and world-class speed, and Harold Reynolds could tell you about his arm. I do believe if he had concentrated fully on baseball, he would have reduced the diameter of that hole in his swing, developed a better eye and he might have become one of the best to ever play the game. Even if things had played out the way they did but he stayed healthy, I think he might have had a few spectacular years.
But … that’s projection. Bo as a running back does not need projection. He was, even as a part-time and often reluctant football player, one of the greatest running backs who ever lived. He ran with the power of Earl Campbell and the speed of Chris Johnson — just to pull a couple of players from the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans history.
Either way, because of that hip injury us sports fans missed out on many, many thrills.
8. I would ask Martin Scorsese to take another whack at “The Color Of Money.”
The Hustler is my father’s favorite movie, and so it is one of my favorite movies. I love everything about it. I love Paul Newman’s performance as Fast Eddie Felson. I love the sad arrogance of Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. I think George C. Scott might be the best of them all. I love the pool scenes, the grimy nature of the games, the way the movie defines winning and losing — never been a better movie at defining winning and losing.
And so when I heard they were making a sequel … and Paul Newman was in it … and Scorsese was directing … and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (an old crush) was in it … heck, even that Tom Cruise was in it … I was beyond excited. I’ve never seen a movie that was better set up for a sequel. I’ve also never measured The Color Of Money by the movie plus-minus because my expectation level was something like 49 stars and it could not help but disappoint me.
But what I did not see coming was that the movie was … SO disappointing. Oh, there were moments. The opening sequence was great. Forrest Whitaker’s turn as a hustler was awesome. Newman, well, how could Newman be anything but great. And even the Tom Cruise pool scene where he’s doing weird karate things while “Werewolves of London” was playing had some energy. But the story was dreadful, and the cinematography seemed gimmicky, and the ending is one of the all-time copouts. The movie was flat and kind of boring and without any point at all.
I just KNOW that if Scorsese had tried it again, he could make an amazing movie.
9. April 30, 1992 tennis match in Hamburg.
Change: I would warn security about a madman in the stands with Monica Seles playing.
Seles-Graf should have been one of the greatest sports rivalries in the history of sports. It should have been like Navratilova-Evert, only at much higher speeds. It should have been fascinating to watch those two try and figure each other out, try and figure themselves out, push each other to the limits. That’s what makes for a spectacular rivalry. That’s why Watson and Nicklaus were such great rivals. That’s why Ali and Frazier were such great rivals.
Graf was playing better, perhaps, than any woman ever had. And Seles came along and was playing even better — every shot she seemed to hit then brushed the line. In 1991 AND 1992 she won three of the four major championships and though she lost convincingly to Graf at Wimbledon, she was figuring out grass. Graf was such an amazing competitor, she would have raised her game. Which might have led Seles to raise hers. And back. And forth. It should have been magnificent.
10. I would try to convince Portland to take MIchael Jordan … Cincinnati to draft Tom Brady … the Kansas City Royals to draft Albert Pujols … the Detroit Lions to draft Joe Montana …
… and more. Don’t you want to know? Don’t you want to know how much of various athletes success was due to their circumstances and how much was due to their own personal talents and determination and focus? What would have happened if Bill Walsh had drafted Akili Smith? What would have happened had the Boston Red Sox not traded Jeff Bagwell? Would Tom Brady have become Tom Brady somewhere else? I think about this stuff all the time.
I suspect that most athletes we know as the very best would have managed to be the very best in alternate universes too. I think Tim Duncan on any team would have been a force, that Ray Lewis would have wreaked havoc in the middle of any defense, that Jim Kelly would have been a star even without that Buffalo hurry-up offense. But I do wonder how much of what we see in sports is a result of a fortunate intersection — a coach, a town, a team and a player all coming together.
If Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders swapped teams, what happens? Some, most maybe, think that Cowboys still win those Super Bowls, and Sanders is even better behind a better offensive line, while Emmitt Smith has a great but ultimately fruitless career in Detroit. But is that really how it would go? Maybe Smith’s strengths — his ability to make first downs, to score touchdowns, to constantly move forward — would have made the Lions a power (as hard as that might be to even imagine). Maybe Sanders’ nature — he was always dancing and looking to break the big run — would have driven Jimmy Johnson mad and created a lot of tension and disappointment in Dallas.
We don’t know. That’s the fun of it, I suppose. But, you know what? It would be fun to know, too.