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The End of Geography (Except, Not)

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When I was young I loved maps. (Not that I don’t now; I still spend a lot of time browsing Google Sightseeing, the book of transit maps from around the world my girlfriend and I bought, and reddit/Map Porn.) As a child I had a puzzle of the United States that I would regularly trace, writing in information of limited importance such as the order of their admittance to the Union. I remember being enthralled at my friend’s CD-ROM street map that covered the entire country.

The intersection of Internet technologies and the traditionally geographically diverse nature of sports has created some interesting issues, and for that matter, maps. This one shows what teams are blacked out in what locations on MLB.tv, baseball's out-of-market TV service.

Of course, today we don’t think twice about being able to pull up a comprehensive street-level atlas of the entire Earth on a portable device the size of a Game Boy Light. Anyone could come up with countless examples of how the world has shrunk even more as the Internet has pervaded our lives more and more.

One might think this would mean that physical location doesn’t matter as much as it once did. In some ways, this is definitely true. It’s easy to get into Singaporean politics, Namibian cricket or Greenlandish hip hop while you lie comfortably in your American bed. This huge expansion of the information one can find if they put a little bit of effort into it is one of the things, if not the main thing, that makes me happy to be alive when I am.

But when it comes to the mass media, I’ve noticed an odd thing: It seems today that location means destiny more than ever.

Take national politics, for instance. Coverage of presidential races is now overwhelmingly reported on by 24-hour cable news networks that deliver the same content whether you’re in Hawaii or Maine. Yet political parties worry about the optics of geography more than ever.

Look at where national nominating conventions have been held. From 1992 to 2004 Democratic conventions were held only in liberal metropolises: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston. Since then the conventions for both parties have been swing-state only affairs: Denver and Charlotte for the Democrats, St. Paul and Tampa for the GOP.

Another area in which geography is playing a larger role is television. Scripted TV shows of the past may have had real settings, but the Milwaukee of Happy Days or the Seattle of Frasier were little more than abstract concepts flavoring the L.A. soundstage environments. While there are still some spectacular examples of this—until you’ve seen the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place, you have no idea how much Greenwich Village looks like Disney World’s Main Street, U.S.A.—the phenomenon has lessened as single-camera, on-location shows become the norm. And it’s even more pronounced when it comes to reality TV.

A somewhat-less-than-true-to-life New York City street set from Wizards of Waverly Place.

The Real World is often cited as a reality pioneer and that holds true in its featuring a different city for every season. Because today, it seems like most big reality franchises are somehow location-dependent. You’ve got Pawn Stars in Las Vegas, Swamp People which inspired a bevy of other shows set in the Louisiana bayou, Jersey Shore which did the same for New Jersey, and The Real Housewives of most conceivable upper-class locales, the format of which is now being exported internationally.

The area in which location seems to have taken on the most added significance recently, though, is sports. ESPN and other national media outlets once acted actually national; now their inordinate focus on teams from the very few largest media markets is unmistakable.

Take the Jeremy Lin phenomenon. I think his is an incredible story and it certainly deserves media attention. But you’ve got people like Mark Cuban—the owner of a team in a big, but not huge, non-coastal market, the Dallas Mavericks—saying that it wouldn’t be much of a story if it wasn’t happening in New York. I’m sure Cuban was exaggerating when he said “no one would know” about Lin if he was playing elsewhere. But it seems clear to me that it wouldn’t have developed into the same obsession for the Worldwide Leader.

Interest in consolidating the NBA’s elite talent into the biggest markets seems to be at an all-time high, if the recent demands of players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard to be traded only to alpha cities are any indication. It’s hard to blame young men with boundless fame and disposable income for wanting to live in New York, Los Angeles or Miami. But I do blame certain media outlets for encouraging them by focusing so disproportionately on teams in places like that.

North American celebrity culture in the realms of film, TV, music, comedy, and so forth have always been centered around an extremely narrow group of cities. I don’t have a problem with that—after all, that’s part of what gives those cities their unique attractiveness. But I have always thought it was kind of cool how sports, by the nature of its organization, is a glamorous industry that is quite geographically egalitarian. To ply their trade professionally, a baseball player from Miami could go to St. Louis, a football player from Southern California could go to Green Bay, and a hockey player from Stockholm could go to Calgary, and all of these moves would be considered seriously moving up in the world. I don’t like the feeling that we’re losing that idiosyncratic feature of sports with increased emphasis on big-market teams.

In my opinion, this is particularly unfortunate in the NBA, which has a tradition of placing teams in small cities that no other major pro leagues are present in, like Memphis, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Portland, Salt Lake City, and San Antonio. Before securing a new arena deal this week, one such city, Sacramento, came extremely close to losing their team to Anaheim, in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, which has two teams already. Is this idea of stacking huge media markets with ever more teams a sign of things to come? I hope not, but with the media focus on those areas, it would make a perverse kind of sense for the teams.

The way I see it, national media has two choices about how to approach coverage of a nation- or worldwide sports universe. Either they can identify stories from anywhere in the country that they think, if widely publicized, would have the most wide appeal; or, they can act like a local outlet focusing on the teams with, statistically, the most fans, and push stories about these teams onto the rest of the country that might not otherwise care at the same time. I think they choose the latter far too often. Which frustrates me, because in this day and age, I want to revel in the fact that we’re no longer beholden to local newspapers and TV for our information. And I certainly don’t want to feel like our spectacular modern communication technologies are just feeding me a facsimile of that experience, and about a location I might not even care about in the first place.

Living in the age of cyberspace hasn’t made geography irrelevant—if anything, it’s amplified it. Some of the effects of this are positive and some are negative in my opinion, but either way, I find it pretty counterintuitive at first blush. But as a recent study showing that Twitter connections match up quite tightly with airline routes indicated, the Internet serves as a compliment, not a replacement, for the physical world. Methods of communication may shift rapidly, but human nature has proven much more resistent to change.

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Written by Dan Wohl

03.02.12 at 1:53 am

Pop Culture Mysteries: The Truth is (Maybe) Out There

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The media explosion of the past 50 or 60 years has led to a big increase in the amount of what anyone might call art or entertainment. (Not that everyone would find all of it artistic or entertaining, of course.) The invention of all our familiar mass communication technologies enabled that, and I revel in living in a world that’s completely flooded with pop culture. Come to think of it, that’s sort of a crucial theme to this blog.

What I think might be overlooked is that not only has a great deal of culture been created in this time period, but so has a stupendous amount of information relating to that culture. We’ve formalized things in a way that probably didn’t seem necessary or practical in past eras. It’s interesting to imagine what a medieval lute player would think of Slayer or what the Knickerbocker Club would think of modern baseball. But I also wonder what they’d make of the 117 different Billboard charts or a college football ranking system that takes into account six different computer-generated data sets.

Details play into our understanding of culture more and more, and Wikipedia and the Internet in general put them at our disposal with a minimum of effort. The ease with which facts can be learned has made it possible for netizens to be obsessed with ever more specific minutia. There are dusty Web backwaters where you can learn all about every conceivable piece of Calvin and Hobbes merchandise. About the lifetime winning percentages of all six Legends of the Hidden Temple teams. About the academic validity of the writing on blackboards in school-set pornographic films.

One side effect of all this, for me anyway, is a heightened fascination with those facts that still manage to fall through the cracks. If you have a basically proficient command of Google and something is still a mystery to you, chances are it is a mystery to society as a whole. Unsolved pop culture mysteries remind me of the vastness of time, in the face of a world where we expect nothing to still be hidden. Here are a few of the ones I find the most intriguing.

What was “Ready ‘n’ Steady,” and what happened to it?

Joel Whitburn is a meticulous record collector and researcher whose mission it is to own and catalog every record that has appeared on the Billboard singles charts since they were invented in 1958. He now has them all, except one.

D.A.'s "Ready 'n' Steady" bubbles under the Hot 100 on June 16, 1979, then bubbles its way into oblivion three weeks later.

For three weeks in June 1979, a song called “Ready ‘n’ Steady” by an artist called D.A. appeared on the “Bubbling Under the Hot 100” chart (which was, at the time, simply positions nos. 101-110). It debuted at #106, went to #103 then #102, then dropped off the chart—and apparently off the face of the Earth.

No one is known to own a copy of the record or know what the song or artist even was. Whitburn, the authority in this area who has tracked down literally everything else, is totally stumped. He now says he isn’t sure whether the record exists at all.

But the evidence is right there. What makes the “Ready ‘n’ Steady” mystery especially confounding is that for a song to come close to the Hot 100 a song has to be, you know, popular. That no one would own or have much knowledge of, say, a legendary unreleased track like “Carnival of Light” is unsurprising. But songs get on the Billboard charts by having their records bought and being played on the radio. People have to have bought it. Radio stations have to have a copies stashed in their libraries. Someone has got to at least remember the damn thing, right? …Right?

There is one other possibility, one that would be pretty bizarre, though maybe no weirder than a charting song disappearing without a trace. That would be that the song never actually existed in the first place. Who knows why or how a fictitious entry could make it on the chart (for three weeks at that). Could it have been a copyright trap to determine if someone was copying their information? Mapmakers add fake towns to their maps for this purpose sometimes, but since Billboard wants its proprietary chart information to be repeated as much as possible, I don’t see how this could be. Could it have been an inside joke by a rogue Billboard employee? You can’t rule it out, though if that was it, they really should have thought harder about making up a jokier sounding title.

What happened to the “Shot Heard ‘ Round the World” ball?

On October 3, 1951, a legendary baseball moment occurred. Down 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning of a playoff game to determine the National League champion, Giants third baseman Bobby Thomson hit a three-run home run to end the game, defeat the rival Dodgers and propel his team into the World Series. It was a shocking turn of events that enveloped the Giants’ home stadium the Polo Grounds in complete bedlam, with Giants fans rushing onto the field in a state of euphoria.

Lost amid the insanity was the fate of one crucial object: the ball. It landed in the left field bleachers and hasn’t surfaced since.

The bat that Bobby Thomson used to hit the "Shot 'Heard Round the World" is in Cooperstown, but the location of the ball is a mystery.

There have been many conflicting stories. One man claimed the ball had been given to him as a child by a family friend, and the ink on it indicating it as such was determined to date from the period. Two eyewitnesses who are visible in photos of the event testified that they saw an African-American boy catch the ball in a glove and run away. An obscure book from the ’50s claimed the ball ended up with a woman named Helen.

One of the most intriguing accounts came from filmmaker Brian Biegel, whose film and book “Miracle Ball” present fairly convincing evidence that Helen was, of all people, a nun. This Sister Helen insisted all her possessions (including, presumably, the ball) be thrown into a dump after her death, and Biegel suggests this was because she was breaking the rules of her order to even be at the game in the first place.

That there’s recently been so much interest in finding this “Holy Grail of Sports” and that in 1951 whoever ended up with the ball didn’t think it important to come forward then or possibly ever, shows how much the concept of memorabilia has developed. Antiques Roadshow, eBay, Pawn Stars and other cultural elements emphasizing the collectability of things has transformed the significance we place on historical objects, and probably on contemporary objects as well.

What’s so interesting about that is that this is all happening right as objects would seem to mean less than ever before, in the age of e-books, mp3s and paying at Starbucks via mobile phone. I wonder if all this has alerted people to the increasingly few things that cannot be digitized. Historical items fall under that category of course, and I’d bet that as society grows more and more digital historical objects will grow more and more interesting to people, as the very concept of tangibility becomes more alien.

There are other mysteries in the world of antiques and collectables, but none about something so crucial to American pop culture. Indeed, Don DeLillo’s magnum opus Underworld immortalizes the whereabouts of the ball as mythic. Huge industries have sprouted up recently dedicated to knowing the truth about old things. But deep down, perhaps even subconsciously, I think people yearn for there always to be a bit of mystery concerning the past. And the chances that the Shot ‘Heard Round the World ball will ever leave that realm seem very slim to me.

What is the origin of the vocal sample in DJ Shadow’s “This Time”?

I’ve discussed music sampling on this blog several times before. And while I’m disturbed by some of the more shallow uses of the technique, I’ve also mentioned some artists whose sampling I think is really artistic and interesting, such as “plunderphonics” groups who construct entire albums solely out of obscure vinyl samples, like the Avalanches. A similar if less dance-oriented artist who preceded the Avalanches is DJ Shadow, who the Guinness Book of Records credited with creating the world’s first completely sampled album with 1996’s Endtroducing.

Ten years later, DJ Shadow released a tepidly received album called The Outsider that was a good deal less sample-crazy. But its lead track, “This Time (I’m Gonna Try It My Way)” was built around one of the most peculiar samples ever.

Puff Daddy may have been happy to copy Led Zeppelin and the Police, but it’s apparent that more creative DJs try to outdo one another in finding the most obscure samples possible. The vocal sample on “This Time,” however, might be some kind of trump card, because no one, including DJ Shadow himself, knows who it is.

Apparently, it was found on a demo reel in an abandoned studio in the San Francisco Bay Area, labeled only with the name “Joe” and the year 1967. If Joe, or anyone who was aware of him making this recording, is still alive, they either haven’t heard this song or haven’t come forward.

The genesis of DJ Shadow and Joe’s track is a testament to the power and mystery of recorded media. How amazing, and strange, is it that a person can write a song and lay it down one day only for it to be both forgotten yet preserved, awaiting rediscovery without any of its original context, for decades?

Considering how much people know about obscure vinyl recordings—the videos breaking down the samples in Avalanches and DJ Shadow songs linked earlier attests to that—something like “This Time” makes you realize how much in fact how much culture we don’t remember. How much has been lost, forgotten or as of now hidden is, to me, incredible to think about.

What is “It doesn’t DO anything! That’s the beauty of it!” from?

Take a look at that quote. Does it sound familiar? I asked this question of six or seven friends and they all said it did. Apparently people across the country and world all do. So…what is it from?

Can you place it? Don’t worry. No one can. It has bedeviled the Internet for years and some truly epic attempts to figure it out have been made to no avail. Willy Wonka, the Simpsons, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—some guesses are more prevalent than others but nothing has proven correct. Investigators have scoured deep into the annals of pop culture looking for the line, and occasionally something reasonably close from a source that is today mostly obscure like this will show up.

Of course, that misses the point. The seeming ubiquity of “It doesn’t DO anything! That’s the beauty of it!” ensures that it can’t be from something most people are not likely to have seen. Chances are that it sounds familiar to everyone because everyone has heard something that sounds similar to at least part of it somewhere. Why this particular phrase has such a strong associative effect like that, and furthermore how and why and by whom it reached the public consciousness for being such, are sub-mysteries of their own.

I think this one is amazing because it’s a mystery so mysterious that it strongly challenges one’s perception of the mystery’s premise in the first place. It’s probably not truly a question seeking an answer at all, it’s more likely a vast sociopsychological phenomenon that creates a mystery without any any possible solution. You can try and try to find the answer, but ultimately you really can’t do anything with this one. And you might just say that’s the beauty of it.

A Retrospective of ’90s Kids’ Sports Movies

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Political scientists say the American political landscape shifts on a predictable 30-year cycle. But I’ve found that the bygone decade that each decade is nostalgic for is even more predictable. The ’00s loved the ’80s. The ’90s loved the ’70s (previous post tie-in alert!). Reagan’s ’80s seemed to mostly buck this trend, but you could definitely argue that the ’70s loved the ’50s.

It’s easy to understand why this cycle happens. Two decades ago tends to be when the current tastemakers grew up. And I’m more than ready to contribute to the ’90s nostalgia that will undoubtedly be a huge deal in the ’10s. When I thought about what this meant, one type of film kept coming up in my mind: the kids’ sports movie.

The ’90s in American sports were, if not altogether hopeful times, at least ambitious, as leagues expanded to include a bevy of Sun Belt and Canadian teams that wore teal or purple or both. I’m not sure if the drive to capture more fans that produced this rapid expansion was the reason, but a whole bunch of movies came out trying to get kids excited about sports. All of them are good for serious ’90s nostalgia, but how do they rate upon viewing today? I watched eight of the best remembered ’90s movies involving kids and sports to see. In chronological order, here’s what I found.

“The Mighty Ducks” (1992) dir. Stephen Herek

"I'm sure this will be a real bonding experience. One day, maybe one of you will even write a book about it in jail."

Given the empire this movie spawned, including two sequels (more on those later), an animated series starring anthropomorphic ducks and—this is still unbelievable to me, 17 years and a Stanley Cup championship later—an actual National Hockey League franchise, it’s easy to forget how much heart the original had. I know I did.

My recollection of Emilio Estevez’s Coach Bombay, for instance, having been mostly informed by the sequels, was certainly not that of the hilariously acerbic bastard he is at the beginning. He tells his driver, trying to find the team he’s been sentenced to coach after a DUI, “Just look for the sign that says ‘Personal Hell.'”

“I’m sure this will be a real bonding experience,” he tells the kids, who have been reacting negatively to his cold demeanor. “One day, maybe one of you will even write a book about it in jail.”

The kids also seem, if not necessarily three-dimensional, realer than your standard hard-luck preteen street gang. They also routinely use the term “cake eater,” which I had to look up to learn is apparently a pejorative Minnesota term for someone rich; that being said, I polled several of my numerous Minnesotan friends on the term, and none of them professed to have ever heard of it.

Of course, the trashtalking kids from the streets of Minneapolis eventually teach him the meaning of fun, and Bombay, being the cutthroat trial lawyer that he is, teaches the kids about winning. It’s a terrific combination.

Pro Athlete Cameos: Minnesota North Stars players Basil McRae and Mike Modano show up, saying they played with Bombay when they were kids.

Quality of Sports Action: Solid, though not spectacular. At least it seems that everyone can skate. Many wide shots look good, and that’s probably because they used doubles. At one point a particularly hard slapshot breaks the net completely though, which takes the film down a few pegs on the realism scale. Also, the vaunted “Flying V” formation is, I’m sorry to say, definitely an interference-and-offsides double helping of illegality.

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Charlie (Joshua Jackson), the Ducks’ captain, lives in a spacious art-filled apartment that his single mom can afford working as a waitress at Mickey’s Diner. Bombay acts as a father figure to Charlie, leading to him getting together with Charlie’s mom at the end.

“Rookie of the Year” (1993) dir. Daniel Stern

"If we don't sell out every game for the rest of the year, we're going to have to, uh, forfeit the franchise."

After a miraculous injection of talent, a 12-year-old, Henry Rowengartner, gets to play in the major leagues. What baseball-loving kid wouldn’t love that premise? I certainly did, and I recalled the film vaguely but fondly.

Boy, did my perceptions change on viewing it today. This is one of the stupidest movies I’ve ever seen, in the ’90s kids’ sports movies department or otherwise.

Even if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief that it’s possible for a tendon injury to heal so “tight” that it gives one’s elbow a slingshot-like ability to make 103-mph snap throws—believe me, I am—this film is still riddled with conflicts that have some of the most absurd stakes ever.

If the Cubs don’t sell out every game for the rest of the season, they’ll forfeit the franchise! If Henry doesn’t complete the save in his second major league game, he won’t get an endorsement deal with Pepsi! If the Cubs’ owner doesn’t find out first, the slimy GM will “sell” Henry to the Yankees for $25 million behind his back! Despite now being the only professional baseball player at his school, if Henry doesn’t successfully build a boat with his friends, he won’t get to hang out with his dream girl!

Daniel Stern, who also directed the film, plays the Cubs’ pitching coach, who never displays any indication of knowing a single thing about pitching. At one point, he takes a few hacks during batting practice, and manages to pop three balls in a row directly above him, hitting himself in the head each time. I suppose this is meant to show how hapless he is, but if I saw it in real life, I would probably assume it to be a Harlem Globetrotterian display of skill.

This sums up the film well for me: it seems like a sports film made by people who know zero about sports.

Pro Athlete Cameos: Pedro Guerrero, Bobby Bonilla, and pre-steroidal Pittsburgh-era Barry Bonds are all shown whiffing at Henry’s fastball.

Quality of Sports Action: Atrocious, even amongst the non-child actors. Gary Busey, who is supposed to be an aging star pitcher, has mechanics akin to this guy. There is also a breathtakingly illegal hidden-ball trick in which Henry: one, stands on the rubber without the ball (balk) and two, holds the rosin bag in his glove to make it look like he has the ball (probably grounds for an ejection).

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Henry’s single mom, has regaled him with stories of a supposedly great baseball-playing absentee father throughout his life. Meanwhile, her current boyfriend becomes Henry’s evil manager, colluding on the Henry-to-the-Yankees conspiracy, leading to Mom dumping him just as she starts to get together with Busey’s character. Finally, in his very last appearance for the Cubs, Henry pulls a patch off his glove to reveal his mother’s name, realizing that all along, the great baseball or softball player was HER, not his father, producing that rare plot element that is sexist, illogical, and detrimental to the film’s premise all at once.

“The Sandlot” (1993) dir. David Mickey Evans

"You bob for apples in the toilet..."

My completely non-scientific sense is that it’s this film that holds the most nostalgia for children of the ’90s of all the films on this list. I could say that’s curious since it’s the only one that doesn’t take place in the ’90s (it’s set in 1962), but the movie’s strength is in capturing the timeless essence of being a preteen on summer vacation.

It’s probably the least sports-dependent of any of these sports films. The journey of Scott Smalls as he discovers good friends and independence for the first time takes place on a baseball field, but it’s relatable in any context. Sure, some things seem stupid now, such as the way Smalls initially gains acceptance among his baseball peers—he stands in the outfield, with arm outstretched and eyes closed, while Benny magically guides the ball right into his glove—but they feel forgivable.

"...and you LIKE IT."

“The Sandlot” shares with “The Mighty Ducks” an excellent sense of the often brilliant, sometimes bizarre way that kids are liable to talk and trashtalk to each other when no adults are around. My favorite line is when a member of a rival team insults a Sandlot kid by saying, “You bob for apples in the toilet..and you like it.” As if grudgingly bobbing for apples in the toilet is a normal and expected state of affairs, but to enjoy it is the real disgrace.

The entire film feels like a hazy memory from years in the future. Witness the beautifully shot slow-motion fireworks-lit game scene, or the comically large size of the dog the kids try to rescue the Babe Ruth-signed ball from. When the dog is finally befriended at the end, he becomes smaller and realer, kind of like the rest of the world does as we grow up too.

Pro Athlete Cameos: No actual pro athletes appear, but Babe Ruth does show up in a dream sequence.

Quality of Sports Action: Truth be told, actually pretty terrible. When the ball comes off Ham’s bat in the first home run of the movie, it is quite obviously heading toward the right field side before a new shot shows it sailing over the left field fence. And everyone that swings and misses does so by about four feet. But it’s hard to be bothered by it when the baseball is so un-central to the plot.

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Scotty’s mom is not quite single, but she has apparently remarried very recently to a man Scotty is struggling to connect with. Stealing his Babe Ruth-signed ball and ultimately covering it in mud and dog slobber doesn’t seem to be the way to do it, but everything works out in the end between them.

Connections to Previous Films on the List: Brandon Adams, who plays Kenny DeNunez, also plays Jesse Hall in “The Mighty Ducks.” In both films, he wears some sort of headwear—a black-green-yellow-and-red knit hat in “Mighty Ducks,” and a Kansas City Monarchs cap here—emphasizing his position as one of the one or two African-American kids in the group.

“D2: The Mighty Ducks” (1994) dir. Sam Weisman

"No! It was me!"

I won’t say that this movie is everything bad the first one wasn’t, but it’s close. I actually had a lot more memories of this one since I owned it on VHS, and could quote it even to this day. For example, I established a tradition among the kids I was a counselor for at Camp Tawonga of yelling “Goldberg!” every time a fart was smelled, after which the culprit had to declare with arms raised, “No! It was me!” But does it hold up?

Well, the premise is ludicrous even for a kids’ sports movie. The idea that a coach who had a single court-ordered successful season under his belt would be chosen to coach the national team at the Junior Goodwill Games is silly. The idea that the team itself would be made up primarily of the kids from the Pee Wee team he coached, several of whom possess quite limited talent, is absurd. And the idea that this coach—again, a youth hockey coach—would be able to sign a lucrative endorsement contract (including his own signature shoe model) and become a household name is truly laughable.

All of which could be forgiven if “D2” delivered the same heart and humor that the first does, but it doesn’t. There is considerably more filler and crass humor, nowhere near as many good one-liners, and Bombay’s arc, going from good guy to vapid celeb-coach and back again, is a lot less interesting or relatable.

I did, however, find the choices of the Ducks’ international opponents to be rather fascinating. Had this film come out 10 years earlier, I think that the evil juggernaut European team would likely have been portrayed as the Soviet Union. But with the dust still settling from the dissolution of the USSR, the role is filled here by Iceland, which is not exactly a hockey powerhouse in real life. I assume the writers figured Iceland, given its name, to be a land of powerful dark sorcery concerning anything involving ice. Also, I really want an authentic jersey of the film’s inexplicable Trinidad & Tobago team.

Pro Athlete Cameos: NHL stars Chris Chelios, Cam Neely and Luc Robitaille make appearances, as does NHL GOAT Wayne Gretzky, as do, rather randomly, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Greg Louganis, and Kristi Yamaguchi.

Quality of Sports Action: On par with the first for the most part, but with a few extremely cartoonish/unrealistic gags thrown in. Fulton ruptures a net in the first film; in this one, his shot produces an inches-deep indentation on a goalie’s hand. The Ducks deceive Iceland by somehow dressing Kenan Thompson’s character in goalie pads during a 30 second timeout without anyone noticing. And in the deciding shootout shot, suspense is milked incredibly cheaply by the film implying that no one is sure whether the Julie “the Cat,” the goalie, stopped the shot or not before she flips it out of her glove. Isn’t that what the goal siren is for?

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? It’s only mentioned in passing, but apparently Bombay and Charlie’s mom broke up and she married someone else.

Connections to Previous Films on the List: Mike Vitar, who plays Miami speedster Luis Mendoza, also played Scotty’s mentor Benny Rodriguez in “The Sandlot,” and Natalie Portman lookalike Colombe Jacobsen, who plays Julie “the Cat,” plays Henry’s dream girl in “Rookie of the Year.”

“Little Big League” (1994) dir. Andrew Scheinman

"Lou? You can marry her even if you don't hit a homer."

I didn’t remember this film very well, but after watching it, I’m convinced it’s the cream of this eight-movie crop. It shares many similarities with “Rookie of the Year”: a prodigious kid is handed an incredible opportunity involving an MLB team (in this case, inheritance of the Minnesota Twins and subsequently naming himself as manager); he has two best friends who bemoan him spending less time with them; a hidden-ball trick figures prominently at a crucial moment; his single mother hooks up with someone on the team (although, as you might have noticed by now, that one is not exactly unusual for this type of film).

So what’s the difference? Everything. When “Rookie of the Year” is crass, “Little Big League” is remarkably restrained. This is by far the most intelligent, subdued and mature film on the list. Take, for example, the exchange that the kid owner/manager, Billy, has with his star player (who is dating Billy’s mother) before his at bat that will determine the fate of the season. The player, Lou, says he’s asked Billy’s mom to marry him, and she told him to ask Billy first. Billy tells him, rather melodramatically, that he can—if he hits a home run.

Now, this is the point when 99 out of 100 kids’ sports films would take you into the at bat, fully expecting you to experience the suspense of both the team’s fortunes and Lou’s future married life hanging in the balance. Maybe he’d hit the home run and everything turns out perfectly. Maybe he wouldn’t, and Billy would then sappily tell him that he can marry his mom anyway, because, “I know you’ll always hit a home run for her” or something.

But in this movie, Billy calls out to Lou a second after his first statement, seeming embarrassed for thinking to set up such a scenario, and says, “Lou? You can marry her even if you don’t hit a homer.” Some might think this anticlimactic, but I thought it was a wonderfully organic-feeling exchange to be plopped in the midst of such a crazy situation.

This quality is what I love about the film as a whole. It extends to the entire premise. The concept behind “Rookie of the Year” is effective wish fulfillment, but it isn’t possible without a totally hackneyed medical-marvel plot device. The circumstances which lead Billy to own and manage the Twins are unlikely to say the least, but after accepting them, I honestly find his success almost fully believable. Who hasn’t known a 12-year-old kid who displays a joyfully obsessive devotion to baseball stats, strategy and history? I knew one in particular very well. Maybe that’s one reason this film resonated with me as much as it did.

Pro Athlete Cameos: A whole slew of actual MLB players of the time portray themselves, including Rafael Palmeiro, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, and in the climactic final game, Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr.

Quality of Sports Action: In another opposite from “Rookie of the Year,” the baseball action in this film is exceptionally realistic. The director seems to know it and shows this off with a ton of slow motion action shots. And the hidden-ball trick in this one is legal and in fact based on an actual play from the 1982 College World Series known as “the Grand Illusion,” which is surely one of the greater baseball moments to be named after a Jean Renoir film.

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? I basically already covered this, but I will add that Lou and Billy’s mom clearly have known each other for some time before the events of the movie take place, making their romance rather less cringeworthy than those in some of these other films.

Connections to Previous Films on the List: John Beasley, who plays a fieldside security guard who’s complicit in the hidden ball trick, also plays Jesse’s dad in “The Mighty Ducks,” and Brock Pierce, who plays a stickball-playing kid here, plays young Bombay in “The Mighty Ducks” as well.

“Little Giants” (1994) dir. Duwayne Dunham

"I call it...The Annexation of Puerto Rico."

This movie might not be quite as bad as “Rookie of the Year,” but it’s definitely more crass than any film on the list. I’m not sure if five minutes goes by in this film without someone falling over, passing gas or getting hit in the testicles. Yes, “The Mighty Ducks” has a character whose flatulence is an occasional source of humor, but “Little Giants” has one whose farts are actually used as an in-game offensive weapon.

The primary kid protagonist in this film is a girl, Becky “Icebox” O’Shea, which it might deserve a bit of credit for, if her character arc wasn’t played out as dumbly as it is.

Figuring that Junior, the Devon Sawa-played quarterback she has a crush on, will want to date “a girl, not a teammate,” this tomboy succumbs to a sudden attack of femininity and decides to become a cheerleader rather than a player…literally on the day of the climactic game, and without telling any of her teammates first.

Even when a rare moment of genuine sweetness sneaks in, like when the team carries the smallest member of the team on their shoulders after he does something good in practice, the film still can’t resist the call of the slapstick: they drop him.

There is one element of this film that I found interesting though, which is the character of Nubie, the team’s nerdy play-designing mastermind. With his large glasses, sideswept straight blonde hair and everpresent button-down shirt and tie, the filmmakers probably figured he was the epitome of archetypal dweebiness, but in fact, he ends up looking exactly like Andy Warhol. Also, I find the name he gives to the gamechanging secret play—”The Annexation of Puerto Rico”—to be the funniest thing in the entire film. I’m not quite sure why. But I’d definitely like to hear what was going through Nubie’s mind when he deemed it as such.

Pro Athlete Cameos: NFL players Tim Brown, Steve Emtman, Bruce Smith and Emmitt Smith, along with coach/broadcaster/Outback Steakhouse pitchman John Madden, show up for one reason or another to inspire the kids.

Quality of Sports Action: Could be worse I suppose, although the relentless sight gags (a barrelled-over defender leaving a full-body imprint in the turf, a receiver whose hands are glued onto his jersey by stickum, etc.) erase any chance of it seeming realistic.

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Icebox’s single dad, played by Rick Moranis, apparently hits a raw nerve when he calls her “my little fullback.” Icebox remembers how her mother called her “my little princess” which is part of what ignites her half-day-long girly-girl phase. In the end, it’s left unsaid whether re-tomboyified Icebox and Junior get together, but Icebox’s dad and Junior’s mom, painfully, do.

Connections to Previous Films on the List: Actually, this is the only movie of these eight that does not share at least one actor with another film on the list.

“The Big Green” (1995) dir. Holly Goldberg Sloan

"There's not much to do in Elma."

I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet that this film was greenlit during the 1994 World Cup, the excitement of which also led to the founding of Major League Soccer in 1996. I found it interesting that the movie does not, however, take place in the middle-class suburban setting that came to be associated with soccer in the ’90s. It actually takes place in a tiny dying rural Texas town, which is definitely a more daring choice.

In the first scene of the movie, some of the kids who later become part of the Big Green are shown dumping a bag of cheese puffs onto themselves and waiting for the circling birds to eat them off their bodies. “There’s not much to do in Elma,” they say, and it at first seems that these are the type of futureless screw-ups who will grow up to operate meth labs in their garages.

Luckily, a teacher from England arrives and teaches them about soccer, which the kids have barely ever heard of at first. What follows is mostly a paint-by-numbers rehash of the triumphant-underdog plot. But the way that soccer gives some purpose to the kids’ lives, and especially, their genuinely loving appreciation toward their teacher because of it, is very sweet.

Despite what the unfortunate poster—which features more goats than girls—suggests, this film is also the most gender-equal on the list. And perhaps most interestingly and unexpectedly, it dips a toe into the illegal immigration debate. The Big Green’s best player, Juan, is an American-born citizen, but his mother is undocumented. The cutthroat coach of the team’s ultimate rival tries to get her deported, but the plan fails, the family gets to stay together, the Big Green win, and Juan and the main girl, Kate, maintain their cute flirtation. (See Icebox? Sometimes guys do want to date a teammate.)

Pro Athlete Cameos: I was totally ready for a cameo from some American from the ’94 Cup such as former free-spirit wild man and current unfailingly negative ESPN soccer analyst Alexi Lalas, but none materialized.

Quality of Sports Action: I got the feeling watching this movie that soccer is probably the easiest kids’ sports film to make look good on film. It’s clear that, aside from Juan, none of the characters (or the actors who play them) are very good, but the simplicity of basic soccer ensures that nothing looks too bad.

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Kate’s single father is an alcoholic deadbeat who doesn’t care about her soccer exploits at first, but they ultimately bond over it. Although the setup is sad, it was kind of refreshing to see his character find redemption by reconnecting with his daughter rather than getting a girlfriend. Unfortunately there is a gratuitous relationship between the teacher and the town sheriff, though.

Connections to Previous Films on the List: Big Green players Chauncey Leopardi and Patrick Renna are also “Sandlot” kids, having played Squints and Ham respectively. And another teammate, Billy L. Sullivan, plays one of Billy’s friends in “Little Big League.”

“D3: The Mighty Ducks” (1996) dir. Robert Lieberman

"It's only a letter, Charlie. Here. I have hundreds of them."

One year, they defeat the world. The next year…they struggle to usurp the varsity team at the private school they’ve become the JV team for. It’s a bit of a step down for the Ducks, but least the scope of the conflict is a bit more believable this time around.

The feel of this film reminded me of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” and not just because of the academic setting. Loyalties are tested. A mentor character dies. Romantic relationships become important. A mysterious forbidden prophecy is finally revealed. (Okay, maybe not that one.) In short, this is the Ducks’ growing up moment.

On the one hand, there is a bit of potential in this idea. I was struck by one scene in Charlie (who goes through a similar phase as Bombay did in “D2,” forgetting the game is supposed to be fun) bemoans the team’s new coach stripping him of the C he gets to wear on his jersey for being the Ducks’ captain. Hans, the team’s elderly and soon-to-die equipment supplier/mentor, tells Charlie that if he wants a cloth applique C, he has hundreds—and we, and Charlie, understand the point that being a leader is not about titles or honorifics.

But on the other hand, this film doesn’t have the same sense of fun of the original or even, despite its flaws, “D2.” It has to resort to “Rookie of the Year”-esque conflicts such as the threat of the team’s scholarships being revoked in the midst of their first season just because they aren’t playing well. In a sense I’m glad that this movie exists just to prove that stories of kids’ sports don’t have to end with puberty, but unfortunately it also proves that even strong concepts usually get stretched way too thin by the second sequel.

Pro Athlete Cameos: Paul Kariya, who was the captain of the NHL’s Mighty Ducks at the time, is interviewed for some reason by the school’s hockey announcer.

Quality of Sports Action: On par with the other two, and at least Julie “the Cat” finally takes over from the obviously inferior Goldberg in goal. Goldberg is converted to a defenseman, and in a nice touch, scores the climactic goal of the film in a last-second-of-the-game sequence in which time moves slower than the third dream level in “Inception.”

How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? We assume that Charlie’s mom is still married, although at one point she’s seen talking with Bombay (who is barely in the film, by the way) so who’s to say whether something’s been rekindled there?

Connections to Previous Films on the List: Scott Whyte, who plays the Icelandic team’s best player in “D2,” also plays a snobbish varsity player here.

So there you have it—my survey of ’90s kids’ sports movies. I said at the beginning that ’90s nostalgia is going to be huge in this decade, and I think it’s true not just because of the two-decade-rule I mentioned before. As we mercifully exit the decade from hell that was the ’00s and beseech the gods to let the next one be better, I imagine there will be great interest in a time when everyone first learned about the Internet, the Twin Towers still stood and the government produced a budget surplus. For whatever reason, I think these films capture those times pretty well. So I hope we keep watching them, to remember that even kids that at first have mud on their faces, are big disgraces and have their cans kicked all over the place(s), can still end up as champions—even if it takes a few fart jokes to get there.