You can’t script baseball, but sometimes it can seem like it

Shohei Ohtani (middle) struck out Mike Trout to win it for Japan

What they tell you about baseball a lot, is that because everyone gets a turn, you can’t guarantee that your best player will get to the plate with the game on the line. Sometimes it’s your second baseman with no concept of the strike zone who wets himself at the sight of any fastball over 96 MPH. Sometimes you can’t even guarantee you can throw your best pitcher, depending on how you deploy your pen, or if the game goes to extra innings, or if your manager insists that closers can only pitch the ninth before he battles his latest case of incontinence. That’s the 162, everyone’s going to matter at some point.

But late at night, when the demons come, if you asked Rob Manfred how he’d want the WBC to end, it would have been USA v. Japan, game tied or the U.S. trailing by a run, with Shohei Ohtani on the mound vs. Mike Trout. A matchup we don’t think about normally, the best player of his generation against someone we literally have never seen anything like before. Comparisons to Babe Ruth? That fat fuck had nothing on Ohtani as a pitcher.

Manfred got his wish, which is obviously the worst way to frame what may end up the coolest moment of the entire baseball season. Or the past several seasons. Enjoy it without thinking about the commissioner.

One of the aspects MLB is missing out on by scheduling the WBC when it does, and one of the things Olympic hockey actually gets right, is the months of anticipation fans go through building rosters in their head and dreaming about things like Ohtani vs. Trout. It’s a pastime in Canada to build out Olympic hockey rosters even when no one knows if there will be Olympic hockey years in advance. The best part of July 1 and the dawn of free agency is watching TSN fill dead air by projecting out the next Canadian Olympic team years in advance.

But the discussions go on in bars and forums and chatrooms and wherever else. Who’s Connor McDavid gonna play with? Will Leon Draisaitl get to go up against him? Maybe Chris Kreider will get a look at Igor Shesterkin in the knockout round. The rearranging of the best players in the world only happens in fans’ heads, and part of the magic of international competition is seeing it play out in real-time. Ask any soccer fan how many times they’ve designed, torn down, and redesigned a World Cup roster for either of the U.S. teams and the number will be in the hundreds. For the past month.

The WBC taking place during spring training comes without that, as any news before the tourney starts is about who’s not playing. That list will shrink in three years as more players see how this tournament is grown. But again, moving it to July instead of the All-Star game would give a whole new context to the first half of the season.

But now’s not the time to complain or point out some faults of a WBC edition that entertained us so. Ohtani vs. Trout is wrestling dream match booking, a gift to all baseball fans, and at such a moment it feels almost ordained. We may see it again when Ohtani is a Dodger in a year’s time, but there will be other matchups to dream of come the 2026 WBC.

The raw power of each, the threat of each are capable of that so few on the planet are also capable of. 101 MPH against a hitter liable to hit one to Narnia with any swing. It’s rare to see such opposing forces whose collision can rearrange particles. A real-life Alien vs. Predator. Usually, we only get this in October, and even then it’s kind of rare because it’s somewhere in a series. In a Game 7…almost never. Hard to even think of one. It’s why you can’t really copy what we got in the WBC in the MLB season or even playoffs.

Here’s a more exact measure of the density of this matchup:

There’s nothing wrong with letting fans dream about this stuff, and no less so every so often giving it to them. Rob Manfred would do well to remember that once in a while when he’s firebombing most things fans like about baseball.

Ilya Sorokin makes an incredible save

As long as we’re talking about joyful things, and that’s not usually an adjective that gets attached to the New York Islanders, here’s Ilya Sorokin bending reality to deny Erik Gustafsson a net so open it was ready to have its wisdom teeth out.

It’s been another banner week for FIFA

This fucking guy again

The election of a FIFA president is probably as close as we can get to a world president, as being the governor of the world’s most popular sport certainly allows one to wield an insane amount of power and influence. What exactly Gianni Infantino has done to earn a second term is anyone’s guess, other than promising a whole lot to smaller nations who continuously fear the power and influence UEFA, for instance, would like to wield. In any rational world, Infantino’s toddler meltdown on the eve of the World Cup in November would have been a disqualifying event. But FIFA isn’t the rational world. Fuck, this dude just compared his own struggles to the recovery of post-genocide Rwanda.

Whoever is casting votes for Infantino, and who had convinced everyone else there was no point in running against him as he was unopposed, sure seems inured to the problems of the organization. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to be. And this week was chock full of them.

It started yesterday when Human Rights Watch pleaded with soccer’s overseeing body to use the Legacy Fund they created before the World Cup to compensate migrant workers and their families, as they had a nasty habit of, y’know, dying while preparing the country for the World Cup and during it. Those that survived were still faced with abominable working and living conditions for meager-at-best pay and an unfathomable amount of abuses.

The Legacy Fund is not something new, as there was always one for hosting countries of the World Cup that gets some, though not all, of the gargantuan revenue FIFA generates from the World Cup. Generally, it has gone to help develop soccer in those countries through investment in youth programs and the like. The difference in Qatar was that FIFA adjusted the aim of the fund to provide for education and a labor excellence hub, whatever the fuck that might be. No mention of the backs and corpses the entire tournament was built on, of course.

As you might expect, whatever oversight and enforcement FIFA paid lip service to before and during the tournament in Qatar has eroded since the spotlight has been taken off the country. The Norwegian Football Federation is pushing a proposal along the lines of Amnesty International’s call for FIFA to compensate workers and their families, which will supposedly be discussed today during their conference. Don’t hold your breath.

Still time to screw the women, though!

Speaking of FIFA’s money, if there’s one thing the organization and Infantino personally are pretty good at is waving people in to pat them on the back for minimal accomplishment. Infantino announced yesterday that the prize money for the Women’s World Cup this summer will jump to $110 million, but that’s still a quarter of the prize money for the just concluded men’s version. Infantino claimed that FIFA is now “on a path” to equalize the prize money, but one needs to only look under the hood for just a second to realize what a horseshit claim this actually is.

One, there was nothing stopping FIFA from equalizing the prize money on their own. The Qatar tournament generated $7.5 billion. We know the money’s there. And if you look at Infantino’s habit of throwing blame in every direction but inward, you’ll see what the real game is here.

Until this tournament, the broadcasting rights and sponsorships to both the men’s and women’s World Cup were sold as a package. You bought one, you got both, full stop. So there was no accounting for what money went where, it just all went into one big pool. Which of course means the money was always there to pay out equally for both tournaments. FIFA just didn’t.

However, this 2023 World Cup is the first Women’s World Cup to be split off, which is why we got the brief flirtation with Saudi Arabia being a sponsor to a tournament they had no business being associated with. It also allowed Infantino to blow himself while castigating others for not offering enough for the broadcast rights and simultaneously remove himself and FIFA from responsibility. “There’s nothing we can do, this is what they’re offering!” The UK, where tournament favorite England are from, only secured a deal through the BBC and ITV last month, a mere six months before the tournament started. This wasn’t a problem when the rights and sponsorships were pooled until FIFA made it one, and the division of them now sure smells like an abdication and foisting blame on someone else so FIFA can continue to hold onto more money.

But as we’ve learned throughout its entire existence, there isn’t a group FIFA and Infantino won’t screw over to make an extra buck.

The 2026 World Cup is swole as f*ck

The governing body of soccer increased the size of the 2026 tournament for the second time by approving a bigger group stage for the inaugural 48-team event.

Despite being shoved into the middle of the season and in a country that was in no way up to the standards of hosting such a thing, the last World Cup ended up being a hit for what went on on the field. Exciting conclusion to the group stages, classic games in the knockout stages, and a memorable winner cementing the legacy of the greatest player ever, Lionel Messi (pictured). So what FIFA wants to ask you is…if you liked it so much, how’d you like to drown in it? FIFA thinks you’ll look like this when the tournament comes to these shores in just over three years.

Changes coming to the World Cup

FIFA officially announced that the 2026 World Cup will not use the three-team group format that had been originally put forward, but will keep the four-team groups that you’ve come to know and love. The three-team idea was cockamamie from the start for a host of reasons. The biggest was that it would open the door for some serious shenanigans at the end of the group stage, with two teams playing knowing exactly what they needed to go through over a third team that wasn’t playing at all. Secondly, going home after two games just seemed cheap and quick (my nickname in high school), which would have been the fate for 16 teams finishing third in the group.

That doesn’t mean having 12 groups of four teams doesn’t have its own issues, the biggest being…well, the bigness of it. That’s 72 group-stage games alone. The entire 2022 tournament, and the previous six, had 64 games total (that includes the third-place match that no one gives a flying fornication about). In total, with the now expanded knockout stage that will have a Round of 32, the 2026 tournament will have 104 games! Cue the dog again!

To accommodate this, it will now soak up some six weeks instead of four, and it will start earlier instead of ending later, with only a 16-day lead-up from when players must be released from their club teams to the start of the tourney instead of 23. Which means that players are basically going to end their club seasons and walk right onto their international teams with basically no rest. Which will make for a pretty shoddy tournament, especially as the winners will now have to play eight games instead of seven, but who cares about that when there are bags and bags of money to be made? We saw something like this in 2002, when the tournament had to be bumped up on the calendar to avoid monsoon season in the Far East, with the World Cup kicking off just 10 days after the Champions League final. You may remember that tournament having some truly silly results, with France and Argentina biting in the group stages and South Korea and Turkey getting to the semis.

And how is FIFA going to lay this out? Four games a day? Five? The four games a day in this past tournament was a lot for any fan, but only lasted a little over a week until the simultaneous kickoffs of the last group-stage games kicked in that everyone was used to anyway. But with 12 groups, playing four games a day means that even the first two rounds of group-stage games would take nearly two weeks. Then another six days to complete the group stages with the simultaneous kickoffs? That means the group stage will take two and a half weeks? That sounds like something that will get awfully stale to fans.

And then you get to the knockouts, which will basically have four or five days added to it with the addition of the Round of 32. Five days added to the two weeks it already took (the last World Cup’s knockouts started on Dec. 3 and ended on the 18th)? Again, this feels like a structure that will have a lot of fans burned out by the time the tournament ends.

The fit is wrong

Other than the sheer size, the fit is just wrong. However evil and goofy the 32-team tournament could be and has been, the actual format is perfect. Finish top two in your group and you move on. It was all contained. Win your group and you get something of a “reward” by playing a second-placed team, though it doesn’t always work that way. The three games had meaning, because half the field would be culled.

But with this misshapen monster, the group stage will be 72 games to send merely a third of the field home. And eight third-place teams will move on, which means teams will have to be weeded out against other teams that have played completely different slates, with coefficients and goal differences and all other kinds of mishegas determining who moves on and who doesn’t while having nothing to do with two teams playing each other.

It also gums up the knockouts, because some group winners will play a third-place team and some will play a second-place team, which isn’t fair at all. The 32-team format was clean. This is very much not.

But 48 teams opens up more spots for smaller countries, whose support is what FIFA president Gianni Infantino has built his power on, just like Sepp Blatter before him. And the TV rights swell because there are more games to sell. And there are more tickets to gouge fans for. And more fans traveling using FIFA sponsors to fly and stay at. So everyone who does that kind of accounting wins, while the rest of us are left to deal with this unwieldy hellbeast of a tournament. But we’re going to watch anyway, which FIFA also knows.

For more of Sam’s soccer thoughts, or just to watch him bang his head against his coffee table while watching Liverpool, follow him on Twitter @FelsGate.

Mikaela Shiffrin is the GOAT, and ‘medalz culture’ can shove it

Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates after an alpine ski, women’s World Cup slalom, in Åre, Sweden, on March 11, 2023.

I know I’m one of the few sports writers leaping to my keyboard to riff on Mikaela Shiffrin breaking the all-time record for wins — earning No. 87 in Åre, Sweden, and passing Ingemar Stenmark on Saturday — but I wanted to issue this as a reminder that Olympic success is kind of bullshit. The last image the sports world had of Shiffrin was her sobbing after crashing her way off of China’s rinky-dink, half-covered ski mountain at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

It’s an outlier, and a one-off. Her dominance resumed as soon as she got back to courses and conditions befitting World Cup skiing. Yet the casual fan isn’t locked into niche sports. Olympic medals were ringz culture before we even knew ringz culture existed. Think about if players were only allowed to win championships every fourth year. Those other three don’t matter, because this event is the only one that does.

The experts said Lionel Messi needed a World Cup win to cement his status as the GOAT, and we agreed instead of appreciating the fact that he has enough awards and hardware to fill an apartment building. In sports, everything must be ranked, measured, and sorted in its proper place. The point of sports is competition, and everyone is either a winner or a loser.


If that’s all that matters, then why do we have Hall of Fames or All-NBA teams or All-Star games with players who don’t have titles? The reasons for watching sports and playing them aren’t the same. If the competitors had their way, they’d beat the brakes off the opposition and the audience would be disinterested by halftime.

The reason we watch sports is to see who wins but also for the drama, the storylines, and the world-class athleticism. If it was only about the outcome, you’d just wait for the ESPN app to tell you the final. We want to take in the greatness, the awe-inspiring talent. Zion Williamson dunks. Bo Jackson runs.


And Mikaela Shiffrin ripping up an alpine course.

An appreciation of professional winter athletes

The reason I care about Shiffrin is because my personal favorite sport (activity?) is snowboarding. Sitting on the lift and seeing someone going mach five in and out of the trees like a well-trained James Bond body double is so much fun. I’ve hit super high speeds according to the app on my phone, but I’ve also ridden the runs that Shiffrin and Co. are straight-lining it down, and it’s no joke.


The same thing for the people at the X Games. There’s zero way of contextualizing how big those jumps are and how steep the terrain is until you see it in person. The mental fortitude it takes to do the feats they do — inches away from hospital beds at every turn — is fucking badass. And that’s how I’d describe Shiffrin.

She’s a fucking badass. The fucking badass. She’s out there competing against only herself. Very few of her competitors are even close.


So don’t let medalz culture sway you because she’s the winningest skier in the sport and will go down as the GOAT when she hangs up her ski boots. 

Team USA loses exhibition to 3-9 San Francisco Giants

Seems like a bad sign for Mookie Betts and the stacked Team USA roster.

Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Trea Turner, Nolan Arenado, Pete Alonso, Paul Goldschmidt, Kyle Schwarber. With a roster like that, you’d expect Team USA Baseball to dominate every game they play. They’re totally going to destroy Great Britain this Saturday in their first game of the World Baseball Classic, but fans were dying to see this roster in action before that game, and that wish was granted as they took on the San Francisco Giants in an exhibition match yesterday.

Oh, well… uh… that was unexpected. Now, obviously, this game doesn’t mean anything, so who cares that they lost, but it’s still shocking that it happened, and by a decent margin too. It’s not like Team USA wasn’t trying. Miles Mikolas was the starter, and even once he got pulled after 2.2 innings, he was replaced by star relievers David Bednar, Adam Ottavino, and Ryan Pressly. Team USA’s lineup included Betts, Trout, Goldschmidt — who was responsible for the team’s only run — and most of the team’s starting lineup.


What’s even more embarrassing is that this is the Giants we’re talking about. Through spring training, their record is 3-9. In those three wins, their combined run differential is +4. They matched that total in their lone game against Team USA. Each of the Giants’ last four spring training games have been losses by four or more runs. They have been horrendous this spring, but when the Goliath that is the Team USA lineup challenges them, suddenly they turn into their early 2010s dynasty? Maybe Team USA just sucks.

Thankfully, Team USA’s next exhibition looked a little better, with Nolan Arenado hitting a grand slam to put the United States on the board.


They’re doing better than they were last night and that’s good news for us Americans. Could you imagine the disgrace our country would feel if we lost to Great Britain in baseball? We’d have to disband the nation after such an embarrassment. That would be nearly as bad as if England had to settle for a tie against the U.S. in soccer. Unfortunately, that has never happened, and definitely didn’t happen in the most recent World Cup, right?


Remember after the U.S. tied Wales in pool play and those scallywags across the pond were talking all that shit. What happened afterward, hm? We tied their goofy asses. We got the last laugh. Those redcoats didn’t know what hit them, and Saturday, I expect an absolute bloodbath the Brits haven’t seen since the Battle of Trenton. That said, a sizable loss to the pitiful Giants, who weren’t even playing their full Major League roster doesn’t inspire much confidence.

The Brits want revenge for the embarrassment we handed them on November 25, 2022, and Team USA can’t let that happen. Perhaps it’s best that they lost their first exhibition game. It will remind them that they aren’t untouchable. Even the greatest lineup can be taken down if they drop their guard enough.


Hopefully, Team USA learned their lesson and they will represent us well this weekend. The United Kingdom has never beaten the United States ever. Not in 1776, not in 1812, not in 2022, and it sure as hell won’t happen in 2023. I’m not worried about last night’s loss. It was only meant to give the Brits hope before we drop a 20-burger on them! HUZZAH!