If you don’t know where this is headed at this point, you will very soon…
THE WASHINGTON NATIONALS ARE IN THE WORLD SERIES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Those are the words I never thought I’d write or say aloud. It’s a phrase I usually reserve for my play-throughs of a rebuild with the Nats in MLB the Show, or a sick joke I make to the only person I know who supports the ex-Expos franchise. It’s become something of a running gag to followers of baseball, regardless of how great the roster might appear to be at the dawn of a new campaign, they’re bound to ultimately fall way short of expectations.
It’s been true of the franchise for nearly the entirety of this decade, one that saw the Nationals claim four divisional crowns and never finish lower than third (except for 2010) in the NL East, statistically baseball’s second-worst performing division of the 2010s (only the AL Central amassed fewer total wins this decade). Despite those frequent trips to the playoffs, Washington had never managed to win a series, let alone have a chance at reaching the Fall Classic.
There was a seemingly brand new element in Washington’s 2019 outlook at the outset of the season…reservations. Not just about their ability to advance in the postseason, but the chances of them even making it out of the regular season at all. They lost homegrown superstar, Bryce Harper, to the division-rival Phillies, and beyond that, they had to contend will every other team in the NL East (barring the lowly-Marlins) fixated on top-billing in the division.
The Atlanta Braves ultimately came away with the best record in the division, but the expectation-less Nats followed them into the playoffs by nabbing the first of two Wild Card slots. But even in making it to the playoffs, they weren’t deemed a viable threat whatsoever, and rumors were swirling that the franchise was bound for an offseason rebuild with ace in-the-making Stephen Strasburg opting out of his deal, and perennial All-Star Anthony Rendon also migrating for greener pastures ($$$).
Yet here we are…at the dawn of the 2019 World Series, with the underdog of the decade, slated to do battle with one of the recently established powerhouses of the AL. Obviously my rooting interest died with the World Series aspirations of my beloved Bronx-Bombers. But I suppose a part of me is rooting for the team who seemingly had to lose it all, just to be able to finally win one.
The Dallas Effect
Let me explain to you what a day in the life for me is, or more specifically, how I receive my daily-dosage of sporting news. I enjoy my morning coffee while tuned in to ESPN’s SportsCenter. I listen to the prior days’ podcasts that I didn’t catch, on ESPN Radio enroute to work. I get text alerts throughout the day from the ESPN app whenever something happens with one of the sports or teams that I follow closely. I listen to live ESPN radio shows on my way back home from work. Then I spend my evenings watching a game (usually on ESPN) while listening to my roommate/podcast co-host, the Coach formerly known as Tre, complain endlessly about how the media berated his beloved Cowboys all day long on the airwaves yet again. Now, as a Giants fan, I don’t entirely disagree with the negative light being cast on a bitter rival…heck, I think it’s well deserved and the same should be done with coverage of the Red Sox and 76ers far more frequently. But when I stop and think about it, he raises a pretty valid point…even for a Cowboys fan…
The shows in question (First Take, Pardon the Interruption, Get Up, NFL Live, etc.) aren’t exactly locally run broadcasts, exclusively catering to a New York-based, anti-Cowboys audience. ESPN, the proudly self-proclaimed: “Worldwide Leader in Sports”, broadcasts internationally, and the above mentioned shows are actually their most viewed regularly-scheduled programs on a daily basis. All of these are opinion-driven debate shows, and I commend all of the hosts attached to these programs for openly professing that their personal biases and rooting-interests are very much in play when they talk sports. It would be like if before every Fox News segment, Sean Hannity stared directly into the camera and said “No matter what happens, I will be voting Republican, and what I say next is entirely based on that fact.” Wow isn’t it shitty that today’s political news coverage is losing the integrity high-ground to entertainment driven sports-based programming.
For years, I’ve always sort of brushed this “anti-Cowboy” sentiment aside on ESPN as it fell in line with my own biases. Heck in a recent conversation with Tre, I even alluded to the Cowboys’ popularity and enormous fanbase being the reason for it, just as it is with any other mega-popular franchise. But then I struggled to actually pinpoint an example. Joining the ‘Boys in the NFL ranks of beloved franchises are the Steelers and Patriots, both recently suffocating in scandal and negative publicity, but both still openly backed by mass-media personalities like ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and Teddy Bruschi. In the NBA, the Lakers and Celtics are not only the winningest franchises in history, but time and again the most popular amongst fans, and as far as the media is concerned they’re the perennial golden-children of the league. And in the MLB, well the Yankees will always be “the Evil Empire” to more fans than any other pro-sports team, but even still, I was hard pressed to find an instance of negative coverage on them in months.
So what is it about the Dallas Cowboys that forces THE sports media giant, to cover them with the same love-to-hate mantra typically reserved for a pair of drunk and distraught Redskins fans in a D.C. bar after their Week 2 shellacking? What makes Dak Prescott a lesser QB than Sam Darnold in the eyes of ESPN’s Mike Greenberg? What makes Jason Garrett a more vilified and worthy-of-firing coach than any of the other’s to have amassed 4-wins or fewer through Week 7?
Seriously, someone answer this, because I need a rebuttal for when I have to listen to Tre voice his complaints later on today…
The Wednesday Night Wars
Hell has officially frozen over ladies and gentlemen. In a singular “sports” article, I am talking about media coverage, and now…yes…professional wrestling. For those of you who might not be aware, once upon a time I worked for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), in a behind the scenes production role. Beyond just the obligatory viewings associated with manning a job in their television department, I actually considered myself quite the fan for a very long time. The seeds were planted in my childhood, with the likes of the Rock and Steve Austin becoming household names in the late 90’s, and the programming that gave them to us was something of a pop-culture mainstay. For the years that followed, I can honestly say I went through phases of loyalty to their weekly programming, which appealed to me greatly with its blend of athleticism and storytelling. And while I am quick to boast that the in-ring performers of today’s wrestling landscape are far and away more talented than their predecessors, I have to admit that my interest in sports entertainment has tailed off greatly.
That is until I got a whiff of something rather new cooking up. You see, my personal favorite part of WWE programming in recent years was a show called NXT. It is intended to operate as something of a minor league/developmental system for the larger brands like Raw and Smackdown, but it has become a captivating phenomenon when you realize that the quality of the show has far exceeded that of its “big league” counterpart. A large part of that stems from the talent in the brand itself, mostly mainstays of the independent scene who have honed their craft in the technically-superior promotions in Europe and Japan, who have journeyed to WWE in search of living out that childhood dream we all shared. The other element that has allowed NXT to thrive in the marketplace: the writing. It’s the worst-kept secret in history, that professional wrestling is scripted (I refuse to say fake, because there is nothing fake about the feats of athleticism and physical endurance that wrestlers put themselves through). But beyond just choreographed body slams and leg drops, the story telling element associated with live-microphone promos and pre-taped backstage segments, has long been perceived as a weakness on the flagship shows of the company. But NXT, with a different writing/production/creative team at the helm, has managed to exceed the standards set on Mondays and Fridays by Raw and Smackdown respectively. Long just a staple of the subscription-based, WWE Network, NXT was rewarded earlier this fall with a weekly time slot on the USA Network. Sandwiched comfortably between Monday Night Raw and Friday Night Smackdown, the yellow-brand gets their own unique day to captivate the imaginations of wrestling fans across the globe…
Except they don’t. Because debuting just two weeks later in the same timeslot as NXT, was AEW’s Wednesday Night Dynamite. Representing the first viable challenge to the WWE’s sports entertainment throne since the days of the “Monday Night Wars”, a half-decade’s long battle between Raw and the WCW’s Monday Nitro. Now, if you were to turn on an episode of AEW’s Dynamite this week, you might see some familiar faces. That’s because over 25% of the roster assembled by the new promotion, is comprised of WWE defectors. If you think the action seems very hard-hitting and fast-paced, that’s because the rest of the roster is comprised of top dogs from the independent scene, who would otherwise fit the “NXT mold”. How can we call this a real challenge to the McMahon dynasty, despite only several months of existence to their credit? Well because after Dynamite destroyed NXT in the ratings in their inaugural episode, the WWE was essentially forced to openly acknowledge their surging competition. And for the record, that same taste of defeat has become a mainstay for WWE in the weeks since AEW’s product debuted on TNT, conveniently also the network that once broadcasted episodes of WCW programming two decades ago.
When WWE and WCW went head to head once upon a time, it forced each product to take larger risks and gambles with their programming, and made wrestling such a can’t miss event on a weekly basis, that it felt like everyone in the world was watching. Back then, both Raw and Nitro were considered more mainstream shows in the genre, with superstar talents and name recognition all that mattered. With an NXT vs Dynamite showdown looming however, we’re going to see something very different. We’re going to watch the best athletes in the business go head to head on a weekly basis, each trying to constantly one up each other through their in-ring efforts and storytelling prowess. How important is this to battle to the WWE? Well they already sent a former World Champion and Raw/Smackdown mainstay, Finn Balor, back to his developmental roots to add legitimacy to the product after the first two weeks of ratings defeats.
To preview the battle that is set to ensue, I’ll borrow the legendary words of the great Jim Ross, longtime WWE commentator who has since become the new voice of AEW: “It’s gonna be a slobberknocker!”