Friday, October 20, 2006

R.I.P., momentum.

OK, I lied; I said there'd be no more posts on sports-motivation. And I certainly didn't intend to go back to that well so soon. But this was just too good. Too perfect.

Last night, during the final game of the Mets-Cards League Championship series, I witnessed arguably the most spectacular defensive play I have seen in almost a half-century of playing and watching baseball. In the sixth inning of a 1-1 tie, Cards third baseman Scott Rolen launched a drive to deep left field. Mets part-time outfielder Endy Chavez raced back to the wall, leaped to full extension at the last instant—and caught Rolen's shot at least several feet over and behind the fence. There is no question that the ball was destined for homerun-dom, had Chavez not snatched it back into the ballpark. (And Chavez wasn't done yet; he then fired the ball to the infield, recording another out by intercepting the Cards' open-mouthed Jim Edmonds before he could return to first base!) Not only was this the kind of play that makes all the usual superlatives seem insufficient, but it was incredibly clutch, given the context. There were just three innings of baseball left to someone's season. The winner would go on to play the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. The loser would go home. Which brings me to my point: If ever there were a play guaranteed to inspire a team—a play guaranteed to establish a winning momentum—that was it. And when the Mets, as if reading from a script, loaded the bases in their half of that inning, you could feel the vibe from the FOX booth, where Joe Buck and Tim McCarver were warming up to rhapsodize about how The Catch had energized the Mets, propelling them to victory....

Only it didn't happen that way. The Mets squandered their golden opportunity, leaving the sacks full; Chavez himself ended the inning with a lazy flyout. Three innings later, in the top of the ninth, Cards catcher Yadier Molina put his team on the road to Detroit with a blast that even Chavez couldn't bring back.

Repeat after me: There is no such thing as momentum. There's energy, and adrenaline, and excitement, and yes, even a sense of destiny. (I'm sure the Mets felt a sense of destiny last night in the sixth inning, until they left the bases loaded.*) But momentum? I.e., some mystical, intangible force that reaches down and somehow causes good things to keep happening? It simply does not exist.

And if it doesn't even exist in sports—the realm from which it supposedly comes—how can we apply it elsewhere??

a sin they compounded, as if to reinforce the point, again in the bottom of the ninth.


a/good/lysstener said...

I'll admit I don't really get baseball, but this is interesting nevertheless. It reminds me of my high school track coach, who would tell us that "desire wins races"! Since I seldom won despite working out like crazy and trying my hardest on the day of competition, I always went home feeling that my coach felt I'd let the team down by being "unmotivated".

And another thing. If desire wins races, are we to conclude that only African-Americans have desire in the Olympics? I hope that doesn't sound racist. I don't mean it to be. I'm just following the logic here.

Steve Salerno said...

No, Alyssa, I think it's actually a salient and vivid point: Are there no white guys with enough desire to compete in Olympic sprint events? To play cornerback (or most skill positions except QB and tight end) in the NFL? I certainly see plenty of white running backs and DBs at the local and small-college level. None of them has a burning desire to excel?

Or could it be that it takes a skill set that--for whatever reason--white guys (who, as we know, "can't jump") just don't have in sufficient numbers....

Cal, ol' buddy, where are ya? I think we need you on this one.

Anonymous said...

The great irony of SHAM thinking pervading sports is that sports is much closer to an objective meritocracy than so many other human pursuits. You can tell who won and who lost, and you can even measure the amount by which they did the winning or losing.

In most jobs, you win or lose and sometimes you don't know which it was and most of the time you'll never have a clear idea of why. A salesman should be excused for a bit of superstition once in a while.

Now ultimately, isn't this a case of the human need to establish control over an inherently uncontrollable process?

And yes, that catch was as good as any outfield catch I've ever seen. He caught that at the height of his jump, as far back and out as he could have, and even so it was an ice-cream cone. And he made sure to secure the ball and make the throw. Really great.


Trish Ryan said...

Four days you made it without a sports post :) Honestly, in playoff season, did you really think you had a chance to avoid this topic???

Perhaps now might be a good time to revisit the story of those brothers who won Olympic medals in track, who saluted one another each morning with the command, "Go to your Destiny!" Words to live by :)

Steve Salerno said...

I know, Trish; I'm incorrigible, aren't I? I guess maybe that's MY destiny--to continue to post on sports, even long after I've worn out my welcome. :)

And by the way... Is it me, or have Blogger's notorious technical difficulties grown almost maddeningly bad of late?

Cal said...


This is a tricky one in that I think you are comparing apples to oranges. I think that adrenaline, energy and excitement is momentum, the extra push that can seperate good from great. And I am not saying that anybody that works hard and pushes and desires can do anything. I am simply saying that the extra "momentum" can be the catalyst that can be a second in a race, or a connection of a ball and a bat. And as for desire I cant agree with Alyssa more that it is a crock! Getting back to "momentum" and track I can remember instances when a teammate had a great race -- especially in a relay -- and that great race carried forwrad to others on the team including myself. The good race or the momentum gave me a little energy, and excitement and it helped. These instances had nothing to do with desire, because, like you always say steve, I dont know of many people that enter the sporting arena with an agenda to lose, unless of course you're the Black Sox of 1919. Lastly, and I have said this before in our previous discussions about "sportsthink" it all comes down to the fact that God made us for a reason and we all have different abilties and traits and characteristics. Desire and wanting to acheive something quite simply means nothing, it might help but anybody can desire to go to the olympics, but the fact is if God didnt give you the athletic ability, that gift you wont make it, and that is that. I don't want to get too religious on everyone but thats the facts.

Steve Salerno said...

Well, Cal, I think I spy a bit of internal disharmony in your comment--but you do make some good points, about the carryover effect in particular (though here again, I'm not sure that the "effect," per se, is what necessarily causes you to win again the next day). I hasten to add (and I've issued this caveat before), I am NOT saying that attitude has no role to play in performance--along with many other factors, none of which probably can be separated out from the whole. Track-and-field is an interesting case study, however, since (no offense intended here to Cal or any other runners) most of its events involve fewer "finesse skills" than certain other sports, like baseball. It does seem reasonable to me that if you're fast to begin with--and if your system is really swimming in adrenaline--you may well outperform another competitor who's normally just as fast, but isn't particularly pumped on that day. (This is, of course, one very good reason why the Olympic Committee bans amphetamines and other stimulants.) Thing is, as we've seen in previous posts, adrenaline isn't always such a good thing in sports that depend on precise control of fine muscle movements; indeed, in his interview early in the playoffs, Cards manager Tony LaRussa made a point of talking about how he thought his pitcher that night "would be fine once he burned off the extra adrenaline." I guess what I'm saying in the end, along with such contributors as "msd," is that "being pumped" certainly has some effect on performance--but we never know just what the effect is, or even whether it's good or bad. It's utterly why build it up as some kind of universal panacea?

RevRon's Rants said...

I can attest to the fact that, in sports which require finesse as well as strength, being really hyped is frequently a disadvantage. In the dojo, whether during informal sparring or tournaments, if I saw "fire" in my opponent's eyes, I knew I had already won the match. While the extra adrenaline might enhance muscle contraction during a kick or other blow, it also served to diminish the precision of the attack. It didn't matter that the kick carried an extra few pounds of force if it didn't land.

When I first began studying aikido, I was already trained in martial arts, and was certain that I was as bad as any human on earth. On my first day in the dojo, the master, who stood barely 5 feet and weighed less than 100 lbs., wiped the mats with me. Each time he would throw me or deflect my blows, I would get more "motivated" to stomp him into the ground. And with each added bit of that motivation, he would further humiliate me. The difference between us was that, while I had a deep desire to emerge the victor I knew myself to be, he merely wanted to move well. My own motivation was one of his greatest weapons!