Sport, and the Art of Quarantined Entertainment

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BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 5: Randy Johnson #51 of the Seattle Mariners pitches during a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles on August 15, 1997 at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Like many others, I’ve finished my coursework and my exams with time to spare. Great. Any other year, I’d have relished the chance to enjoy some wonderful spring sunshine and the occasional pint with my mates. Heavenly. However… well, you all know the drill. I’m stuck on my sofa all day bored out of my mind.

Any other day of the year, this would just be considered a “Saturday” and (non-sports fans, you can stop reading now) I’d fill the day by watching football. Or basketball. Or baseball. or American football. Or formula one. Or any other organised gathering of professional athletes exposing themselves and their families to the risk of contamination. Bugger.

So, to fill that void in my soul (no, the other one) I, like many others, have resorted to Youtube and Netflix and the lot to prevent my brain cells from taking a swift trip out of my ear canal and into the bin. For many, a recent and very reliable source of such entertainment has been The Last Dance, a documentary series about Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. I’m wildly understating things by saying that what ESPN and Netflix have created is one of the best pieces of storytelling this Century has offered — a magical trip to 1990’s America, and the narration of a hero’s journey perhaps even more enjoyable to those unfamiliar with basketball than those who know MJ already. It’s got a 97% score on Rotten Tomatoes at time of writing, and I would guess that’s only because critics tried to put a score of 103 before the machine bounced it back.

Yet, I’m not here to write about or sell The Last Dance. If you like being entertained, then go watch it. Simple as that.

Partly because not everyone has Netflix and partly because Basketball is far from uncommon on this side of the pond, I want to talk about Dorktown instead. I am not kidding when I say that the most entertaining, informative, jaw-dropping, tear-jerking and frankly ex-tra-or-di-nary piece of media I have consumed in my 20 years on earth is a four-hour six-part animated docuseries on Youtube about the history of Baseball’s most average team ever. I don’t even want to sell this series to you, I just want to share what’s so unique about it.

I’m very much from Europe and I was born in the year 2000, so the “Seattle Mariners” meant nothing to me. Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein, two amazing statisticians, sports fans and storytellers from SBNation, have flipped that upside down. The series and the team it follows are both oddities. The Mariners have never been consistently terrible, and have never won big either. Seattle’s never been home to some big scandal, some global superstar to transcend the sport (sorry Ichiro), some curse (looking at you, Boston) or anything else worthy of ESPN or Netflix or Amazon or HBO chucking hundreds of thousands at to document. That’s not what Dorktown is about though.

Instead, Bois and Rubenstein use graphs, charts, maps, photos and newspaper clippings (that is literally it) transposed upon a big calendar to explain the history of this solitary franchise. For the creators of Dorktown, history is meant in its truest sense. Not achievements or laurels or awards, but the human experience. The stories, the emotions, the people. What connects some of Baseball’s most iconic stars, most mind-boggling statistics, and ridiculous stories to Baseball’s most isolated team, hundreds of miles from their nearest rivals.

They vividly illustrate the chronological recounting of four decades of Baseball history with a slew of statistics and graphs about ERAs, Pythagorean Wins/Losses, Strikeouts, and Home Run hitting rates to build shrines to timeless Gods of the sport, all the while reminding us of these heroes’ humanity with stories about the wacky place that is 70s, 80s and 90s America, gut-wrenching individual efforts that defied logic, heartbreaking losses, and anecdotes about a hotel bathtub full of jelly, a child’s lifelong anger at their dad’s boss, and a man not willing to reveal his dog’s name without their consent. Married to this is the perfect score, a roller coaster of silky jazz and edgy techno, as well as Jon Bois’ famous narrative humour, which has earned him a reputation on twitter and YouTube alike.

The most striking feature of this series, however, is the message. The purpose. Why? Why would they make this series? Why do people support this seemingly pointless team? Why do they have an identity? Why can’t they win? Why can’t they lose? Why does this city have a team? Why have players fallen in and out of love with the Seattle Mariners? Why can’t the team find the damn bloke who gave them their name? The answer? There is none. You realise slowly that some questions are not binary, and some cannot be answered. In fact, perhaps all questions are without true answer. Even in Baseball, with numbers and stats and hits and runs, what is most fascinating, most endearing, most attractive and most addictive is the human condition.

Bois and Rubenstein have patched together an incredible work of storytelling with the most bog-standard tools. The difference here with something like The Last Dance, which is also an incredible piece of art, is the goal. One is to give us a vividly painted story and a perspective on a sport- and era-defining team and player. The other is to paint a picture of sports as a medium for the human experience — often nonsensical, often pointless — and to snap us out of the false comfort of hindsight. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe this Dorktown series is just about some guys playing baseball, and why they’re so special to the people of Seattle after so many years.

Collector of Tesco clubcard points.

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