LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Now that rousing song was not written by BJ Liederman, but he did write our theme music. Still it's good to hear this because the drum line means that Mike Pesca, host of The Gist podcast from slate.com, is here to talk sports. Mike, hi.
MIKE PESCA: Hi, how are you? It's hard fitting all these drummers in the studio with me. But - Steve calm down. OK.
WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) The U.S. Open, Mike, it starts tomorrow. I'm excited. Preseason football is in full swing. And Major League Baseball playoffs are just ahead of us - lots to look forward to. Or depending upon how you look at it, lots to worry about it. Why are we biting our nails?
PESCA: Well, I think of sport as the buildup of tension, the release of tension - usually in the course of one game. I mean, that's why people like it. But there's so much of sports that is about anxiety and is about worrying how your team's going to do. And nothing epitomizes this more than preseason football.
Now in the case of tennis, you have a little bit of an odd situation that Rafael Nadal's not going to be playing in the U.S. Open and Djokovic has been great this year. And Murray's coming back from a surgery. So it's like it's a little bit in flux. And then if you're an American tennis fan, it's just - it's been a very hard period, especially for male tennis - if you're a fan of American men.
If you're fan of American women, you have the Williams' sisters. And Serena's still at the top of her game. But underneath her, when the next generation comes, I think Sloane Stephens is 21st in the world. But American men have not been good in tennis for so long. And it has been debated for a while. So many reasons - other countries emphasizing tennis.
But just today or yesterday, The New York Times did a pretty extensive article on the USTA, the governing body of U.S. tennis, and they point to some - if not corruption - really questionable practices. You know, got people on the board getting grants, getting loans, favoritism. And so that makes you start thinking, hey, maybe a reason that U.S. tennis has been lagging is because the overseers have been derelict in their duty - again, anxiety producing.
WERTHEIMER: Preseason football - not so great - but, Mike, it's only the preseason. We don't really worry about the preseason do we?
PESCA: Well, we're not supposed to. On an intellectual level, everyone knows, you know, the year that the Lions go winless, they go undefeated in the preseason. So there seems to sometimes even be a negative correlation between preseason success.
And yet, you know, football - it takes - there's a week between games. And there's so much buildup. And it's very much like a soap opera. This is why men like football. You know, it's their version of being able to, you know, bite your nails about what's going to happen, like, on "Downton Abbey."
Women like football, too, for that reason. And so what happens...
PESCA: What happens is that every little thing gets magnified, and you worry about who's going to be the backup safety. And with specific teams - certain teams seem fine. The Seahawks, you know - but then take the third, maybe the second or third best team in football - the 49ers. They've only scored three points in the first two preseason games. I'm sure 49ers fans know, hey, look, it's preseason football. They tell themselves on the intellectual level, but on the emotional level, in the gut, it just hurts so much.
On Friday I was watching the Jets play the Giants. Now the Giants were an undefeated team in the preseason - still are. But their offense is terrible. It's this new offense. And so how can Giants fans not feel that anxiety? So I think all of preseason football is just this huge buildup of anxiety. Even if you think your team's going to be good, it's the anxiety of, like, let's hope no one gets hurt. Let's get the games on the way. And I think that actually is one of the reasons people love football.
WERTHEIMER: Now at least, a sports fan can relax ahead of the MLB playoffs. It seems like - every baseball team is in the act now.
PESCA: Right. If you're not - if you don't have a losing record, you're probably only, like, five or six games out of the wildcard 'cause they expanded the wildcard and now two teams - five teams in each division make the playoffs.
So on paper, everyone has a chance. And with every win in September, even a mediocre team can say, hey, we're only this many games out. But if you look at the statistics, a team like the Yankees might only be four or five games out. But they really only have about a 5 percent chance of making the playoffs. But baseball is more about good feelings than anxiety I think. And so everyone has almost this false sense that they can make it.
But I'll tell you another baseball game that's very much about the release of anxiety and tension - it's the Little League World Series. And the Great Lakes team advanced past Nevada, and the finals against South Korea are going down today. And so a 12-year-old will cry, but a bunch 12-year-olds will exalt also. So we have that to look forward to.
WERTHEIMER: Mike Pesca, of slate.com. Mike, thank you very much.
PESCA: You're welcome. And my band thanks you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.