Naomi Osaka Meets Her Hero

For those of us who enjoy sports because of the drama and the real life characters, there hasn’t been a better event in recent years than last weekend’s U.S. Open final. In one corner, there was Naomi Osaka, an emerging phenom who bulldozed through the tournament to make her first Grand Slam final. In the process, she won the hearts of many with her endearingly awkward and funny press conferences and post-match interviews that resonated with me in particular as a fellow mumbly weird person.

In the other, there was Serena Williams, looking for her first major win since giving birth and also looking to tie Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slams record. Serena is an incredible athlete, but a little harder to relate to, in that she’s just so damn good and has reached this level where she feels almost more like a god of tennis than a real person.

Osaka is a big fan of Williams and grew up watching her play. When Tom Rinaldo interviewed her after the semi-finals, she admitted what was driving her was that she really wanted to play Serena. That’s followed by one of my favorite sports interview moments in a long time: Rinaldi asks if she has any message to send to Serena, clearly teeing her up for some sort of controversial trash talk or at least friendly banter. Osaka freezes up a bit and just blurts out “I love you!” and then laughs as she realizes how weird it is that she just said that to her opponent.

Not exactly the most intimidating message to send, but that’s what makes Osaka special. And it set the stage for a final that I figured would be competitive, and also a lot of fun as we got to see Osaka take on her idol on one of the biggest stages imaginable. It didn’t quite work out like that. I couldn’t watch the match because I was going into work, and when I arrived, people had it on TV and they were doing the post-match ceremony, everyone was crying, the crowd was booing, I couldn’t tell who won, and the whole thing just looked like a mess.

I got informed that there was a lot of controversy, and later watched the video of Serena’s meltdown, which is really unlike almost anything I’ve seen in sports. Verbally abusing the officials is a time-honored tradition in all sports, but usually it’s a brief thing and then everyone moves on and keeps playing. This just kept on going for what felt like forever, and got increasingly heated and personal.

Serena’s actions have predictably become a lightning rod for takes and debate, mostly overshadowing the match itself. I still don’t really know what to make of it. My kneejerk reaction was that it felt like Serena was way out of line and unprofessional, and just from a standpoint of trying to win the match, she should have dropped it. But Serena is also in a situation I can’t even fathom: she’s an incredible athlete fighting for a huge win and feels like it’s not only being taken from her, but that her reputation is being maligned in the process. So that makes me empathize with her even if I can’t fully justify her actions. And then there’s this referee, who is getting abused by Serena for like 10 straight minutes when I feel like he was just trying to do his job. Maybe he sucks at his job and made a mistake, but does that warrant this type of reaction from a player? I have no idea about any of this. I just laugh at anyone who has a really confident take on what happened, because to me there are so many gray areas and nuances that it’s impossible to judge.

The only thing I’m confident about is that this was an ugly, bad thing that happened. And of course, Osaka was caught in the middle of it. I found the entire thing incredibly poignant from her perspective. She gets to play her hero, who she has put on this pedestal, and then stands across from the court as she has this really human, fallible moment where she just loses it. She beats her hero, but it doesn’t happen in the triumphant way she had imagined, as the match is just a backdrop for what’s happening between Serena and the official. Then she has this trophy celebration, a moment she’s dreamed of, and there’s boos and awkwardness, her hero is hugging her, telling the fans not to boo, and everything is just overwhelming and weird. I don’t know if there has been a more bittersweet moment in sports recently. I was simultaneously happy and heartbroken for her.

I feel even worse for Osaka when I realize that, deep down, I’m really enjoying all of this. The narrative dork in me can’t help but think that this is an amazing story that nobody would have ever written this way if it were fiction. A big reason why I love sports is that you get these really powerful, meaningful moments that surpass what the human imagination is capable of thinking of.

Baseball’s Contrarian Franchise

Despite what you might think from watching ESPN or MLB Network, the most interesting franchise in baseball is not the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the L.A. Dodgers, or the Chicago Cubs. It’s a team that plays its home games in a dingy dome stadium in front of generously 5,000-10,000 people per night, has one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, and was accused by almost everyone of “tanking” for a high draft pick just a couple months ago.

Despite the public thinking they were fielding a terrible team on purpose, the Tampa Bay Rays currently sit at 46-44 with a +13 run differential, continuing their recent trend of somehow patching together a .500 team every season with what looks like the baseball equivalent of Scotch tape or possibly gluesticks. If not for the Mariners being the luckiest baseball team in history, they would be contending for a playoff spot. The secret to their success is what makes them the most fascinating team in the league to watch: the Rays are willing to rethink every single aspect of the game if it means getting an edge.

In the old Moneyball days, it was somewhat easy for the small-budget organizations to field a winning team because other front offices didn’t know what on-base percentage was and thought the key to winning games was bunting. In today’s MLB, there are no secrets. The big market teams have stopped entrusting their decision-making to former players who don’t actually understand the game, replacing them with robotic Ivy League whizzes and baseball nerds. The odds have never been more stacked against teams like Tampa Bay or Oakland, who can’t afford to keep star players once their salaries get too high and now are left with fewer resources towards analytics than the bigger clubs.

Since simply outsmarting teams like the Red Sox and Yankees is no longer an option, the Rays have gone a different route: they think differently and weirder. In a Wall Street Journal article, a team official summed up the Rays Way: “If we occupy the wake of both the Yankees and Boston and our behavior is aligned with theirs, we’re never going to step out and pass them—ever.” The only edge the Rays have is their willingness to try anything, no matter how crazy it sounds.

So the Rays have become the contrarians of baseball, mostly through necessity. Their home park of Tropicana Field has become like a baseball laboratory, where new ideas are constantly tossed into the fire. Eyebrows first raised in the offseason, when they traded away their face of the franchise, Evan Longoria, jettisoned last year’s best player, Steven Souza Jr., and straight-up DFA’d Corey Dickerson, who was coming off what looked like a career year. This led to the accusations of tanking (and they were obviously salary-cutting moves), but they were more about changing the philosophy of the team. With the rest of the league obsessed with power hitting and launching the ball, the Rays decided to go small ball, building around their defense and pitching.

It’s worked thus far, as the Rays are a competitive team that is notably stingy at giving up runs. Most remarkably, they’ve done it while frequently using a three or even two-man starting rotation. They’ve taken to having “bullpen days,” where 3-4 pitchers go through the batting order once or twice instead of using a traditional starter. They’ve also begun using “the opener,” where one of their normally late-inning relievers starts the game, faces the team’s toughest hitters, then leaves after one or two innings to hand the ball to the “starter,” who is spared from facing that team’s best hitters three times. These are all dramatic shifts from the way every other team is run, with a five-man rotation where the starter pitches basically as long as he can every game.

The logic behind the bullpen days makes a lot of sense: relievers routinely have lower ERAs than starters and pitchers always are better the first and second times through the batting order than the third. While very good starting pitchers are still important (and the Rays have them in Chris Archer and Blake Snell), using a group of bullpen guys instead of trying to wring 150-180 innings out of a mediocre 4th or 5th starter is one of those obvious ideas backed up by data that just needed a team brave enough to try it. As always, due to their situation, the Rays are that team.

Baseball is notoriously resistant to change, which leads to widespread skepticism and even disdain whenever the Rays try these strategies. But baseball’s obsession with tradition and doing things the way they always have been done is exactly why the Rays are able to comparatively thrive despite being in the worst possible situation. And when the rest of the league catches up to them on bullpen days, like they did with infield shifts and aggressive platooning, they will have some other trick to try to stay ahead of the curve (my guess is trying to develop two-way players).

More reasonable critics of the Rays dislike the team’s cold approach and cheapness, which leads to their best players inevitably being shipped out of Tampa, often at the peak of their ability. Personally, I enjoy the team’s lack of sentimentality and borderline disrespect for their own fans. If the Rays only did things that were popular and understood, they would never be remotely competitive in the AL East. And there is something admirable about how they make their decisions with the internal conviction that they are right, even if nobody else agrees. It’s why the Rays are a fun and good baseball team, as well as a walking argument for not just aligning with the status quo.