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Sportswriting’s Old-Timers Game

When retired athletes from Mike Schmidt to Michael Jordan whine about modern-day players, it makes for the easiest and most revealing trick in the sports media playbook

Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Did you hear what Michael Jordan said about LeBron James? What Dennis Rodman said about the current Golden State Warriors versus the “Run TMC” version? What Mike Schmidt said about Odúbel Herrera, home runs, and pretty much everything?

I’m guessing you did, either as it flicked across your Twitter feed or germinated into an Undisputed segment. This is sportswriting’s version of the old-timers’ game: asking a former ballplayer what he thinks of the current state of the game and then feigning shock when he says, “Get off my infield grass!” There is no more eternal, and usually lousier, form of sportswriting.

You can sort an old ballplayer’s gripes into four categories. The first is: “The new guy isn’t even good.” In 1939, Tris Speaker, a Baseball Hall of Famer whose career began in 1907, was asked if Joe DiMaggio was a worthy heir. “Him?” Speaker replied. “I could name 15 better outfielders!”

Speaker must have experienced the ’30s version of a bad Twitter ratio, because later that year, a writer noted that Speaker “blinked unhappily at the mention of DiMag.” Speaker then walked back his rant: “Golly, I’ve had a lot of headaches over that story. … I’m not sure I can name 15 outfielders. He’s one of the greatest ballplayers of all time.”

Rodman ventured that the Warriors he played against in the early ’90s were superior to the current team. “They were scoring like 130 points a game back then,” he said. “They was way better then than now.”

The second old-ballplayer gripe goes like this: “OK, the new guy’s great. But he’s not a complete player. In February, Hall of Famer Goose Gossage got off a rant about pitcher endurance and the league’s “pampered babies” that eventually landed on the greatest closer of them all, Mariano Rivera. “Mo was great … for one inning,” Gossage said.

According to Gossage, the relievers of his era didn’t have the luxury of the one-inning save. As he put it: “I’m not taking anything away from what Mo did” — the old ballplayer always says this — “but don’t compare me to him. It’s insulting. It really is.”

Goose Gossage throws the pitch Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

This is also the nature of Jordan’s gripe about LeBron. Speaking at a basketball camp in California, Jordan skipped James’s entire stat line and pointed out that he has only three NBA titles. Kobe Bryant has five, Jordan said—and “there’s something about five that beats three.” Someday, when James is old and his hairline looks even more suspicious, he will ask how great Michael Jordan IV can be if he didn’t carry his team to seven straight NBA Finals.

The third old-man gripe is: “There’s something wrong with the new guy’s character.” This is where the ballplayer reels off his grandpa- or grandma-esque views on race, sexuality, and national origin. In a May interview, Australian tennis legend Margaret Court said the sport today is “full of lesbians.” In 2003, the great Philadelphia Eagles linebacker “Concrete” Charlie Bednarik denounced the “nigger bullshit” he claimed had taken over the NFL. Schmidt said the Phillies couldn’t be built around Herrera because he doesn’t speak English well enough.

In this category, we hear complaints about bat-flipping, excessive celebrations, and fraternizing with the enemy. Gossage is also back, proving he’s not a one-inning guy: “Ryan Braun is a fucking steroid user.”

The old ballplayer’s fourth and final gripe is: “The new guy is great. But it’s the league that’s gotten worse.” Oscar Robertson is usually a generous legend, laying hands on James and dubbing Russell Westbrook “the triple-double king.” But when asked about Steph Curry’s success, Robertson blamed NBA coaches who wouldn’t extend their defense past the 3-point line.

Denver Nuggets v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images

“I look at games today,” Robertson told Mike & Mike last year, “and they’ll start a defense at the foul line. When I played, they were picking me up when you got the ball inbounds. So it’s a different strategy about playing defense.” See, if coaches had just thought to D up on Curry as soon he got the ball, the Run TMC Warriors could have claimed their rightful place in history.

One reason we drown in old-ballplayer takes is because “Is the new guy better than the old guy?” is a sports argument we were already having. Every off-day of the last NBA postseason was consumed with measuring Michael Jordan’s legacy against LeBron James’s. When Jordan himself weighed in, he took the question out of the realm of analytics and added personal stake and bitterness—the stuff of drama.

One of the most fascinating specimens of the genre is the comments that Jordan made about Tiger Woods in Wright Thompson’s 2016 profile. As Jordan told Thompson, “I love him so much that I can’t tell him, ‘You’re not gonna be great again.’” You could read that as a gentle reflection on Woods’s declining years. Or you could read it as one ex-legend putting a cap on a younger legend’s career.

Study just one of these stories and you can understand how useful they are to journalism circa 2017. For more than a decade, Rick Barry has been telling any writer who needed a column that NBA players who can’t shoot free throws should shoot them underhanded, just like he did. Yet in May, when Barry said the same thing, the story was gobbled up by The Comeback, (RIP), and Slam.

BIG3 - Week Seven Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It was the perfect generic sports blog. It had a hint of intergenerational strife, and “pathetic”—Barry’s term for any player who can’t shoot 70 percent from the line—was a good word for the headline. The items had the effect of turning Barry into a gum-flapping old man, an easy object of ridicule, even for young fans who barely know who he is. (Granted, Barry often makes this very easy.)

Outside of sports, you see the opposite dynamic: the crowd cheering as a veteran emerges from the magic cornfield to tell Junior how the game ought to be played. This spring, Ted Koppel, who hosted Nightline from 1980 to 2005, “calmly eviscerate[d]” Sean Hannity in a TV segment. Koppel didn’t say anything about Fox News he hasn’t been saying for years. But he took a common gripe and added the weight of ’80s network gravitas. For aggregators, Koppel is more valuable as an eviscerator than he is as an actual news anchor.

In March, when former pitcher Bert Blyleven farted up a take about baseball players celebrating too much, Extra Mustard’s Jon Tayler argued that we should just stop asking former ballplayers what they think about the modern game. This is tempting. But it’s probably not a good idea. For one thing, old ballplayers aren’t always wrong. In 2002, when Boston was losing its mind about Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce, Kevin McHale was asked how they compared with his classic Celtics. “They couldn’t carry Larry Bird’s jockstrap around,” he said. McHale was right about Walker, anyway.

The better answer is to focus less on the complaint than on what’s behind it. Anyone who has listened to their grandfather complain about the modern world knows these complaints are most interesting as a window into the insecurities of an aging man.

Imagine a star player being the greatest for his entire career. Then, in his golden years, he is constantly baited: What do you think of the New Guy? Is he better than you? Are you ready to surrender your title as homerun/touchdown/scoring king?

Oscar Robertson says Russell Westbrook plays basketball the right way because, by playing for triple-doubles, Westbrook is saying Robertson played basketball the right way. But by Robertson’s logic, why don’t coaches just defend Russ as soon as he gets the ball?

Jordan elevates Kobe Bryant because Bryant’s career is over and will never be better than MJ’s. But Jordan can’t help but take a swipe at James, whom, as Shannon Sharpe noted, he sees “as the only legitimate threat to his legacy.”

As part of my job as a press writer, I spend time talking to old sportswriters. Just about every one of them takes a moment, subtly or not, to swipe at the current generation. Where are your editors? So-and-So Famous Writer wouldn’t have even gotten hired in the ’70s/’80s. Why—here the veteran scribe goes the full Gossage—while you wrote that blog I could have written a gamer, a notes column, and two sidebars!

An old sportswriter saying us youngsters couldn’t have hacked it back in the day is like an old basketball player saying he wouldn’t have let Steph Curry get off a shot. The particulars of the gripe are less interesting than the yearning behind it: Oh, to be a young man enjoying the pleasures of the modern world. Now that’s a story.