More than 30 what-if stories that reinvent sports history, and perhaps the greater national history.
Former NPR sports reporter Pesca, host of the Slate podcast The Gist, asked his contributors to give the full trajectory of the what-if, not just how one game may have played out had Bill Buckner not booted a routine ground ball or Drew Bledsoe not gotten hurt and given way to Tom Brady. The author wants the bigger picture: how it might have changed the sport, a life, the politics of a nation, or paved over major cultural roadblocks, like racism. That is a tall order for rather short fantasies—roughly five to 10 pages—but a surprising number pull it off. “What If Nixon Had Been Good at Football?” by Julian Zelizer, is a wonderful little psycho-sporting profile that presents Nixon as a confident, honest, comfortable-in-his-own-skin man. “What If Roger Bannister Trained Today?” asks Liam Boylan-Pett. Instead of squeezing in a few hours per week between medical school classes, what if he had followed today’s rigorous training regimens? Probably a new world record. What if Muhammad Ali had gotten his draft deferment? What if professional football were invented today? With what we know about head trauma, we might have very different play and players. For those readers who are intimate with a particular event—e.g., what if Billie-Jean King had lost to the huckster Bobby Riggs? What if Brady hadn’t stepped in for the injured Bledsoe?—these counterfactual stories may feel thin on the bone. There are, for instance, lots of reasons besides Brady that the New England Patriots are the dynasty they have become, and it does feel like coaches, other players, and the general state of the sport at the time get short shrift. Other notable contributors include Leigh Montville, Jeremy Schaap, Will Leitch, and Mary Pilon.
Some quibbles aside, this is sports escapism brought to new and entertaining heights.