Monday, May 14, 2007

"Oh, by the way, I think he also got glasses...."

First of all, I do realize that there are other sports besides baseball, and that baseball isn't even really the "national pastime" anymore; in truth, sentimentality aside, it ceased being that a good while ago, and has probably been overtaken nowadays by football and basketball, at least in the hearts and minds of younger sports fans. Also, as one of our regulars pointed out, baseball isn't necessarily the athletic endeavor where Sportsthink looms largest. For such reasons I apologize to anyone who thinks I'm wasting people's time, or inflicting my own preferences on everyone else, by constantly dragging baseball onto the blog.

All that said, you'll seldom find a more striking statement of Sportsthink stupidity than I found upon opening my copy of ESPN this month and turning to the article about the profound resurgence of Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez. For those who may not follow baseball that closely, A-Rod, as he's called, got off to a blistering start in which, among other things, he tied baseball's all-time record for home runs in the month of April. This was quite a turnaround from last year, when things got so bad for A-Rod* that Yankee fans (and, reportedly, even team owner George Steinbrenner) talked about unloading the slugger—and the vast sums remaining on his record $252 million deal—to some other team.

And how does ESPN's writer, veteran baseball analyst Buster Olney, explain this phenomenon? Two ways, in back-to-back paragraphs on page 62.

First there's this from Yankee third-base coach Larry Bowa (as dyed-in-the-wool a Sportsthinker as exists anywhere): "Alex shows you the importance of confidence." The line is set up in such a way as to give it the primary emphasis.

Then, a line or two later, almost as an afterthought, Olney adds that A-Rod's "leg kick [shown above] was so dramatic last year that it altered his line of vision. His head would descend as he began his swing. Imagine trying to hit a pitch as you travel the downslope of a roller coaster." Olney then quotes batting coach Merv Rettenmund: " 'If the head is going down, the barrel of the bat is going down.' " Presumably this is why so many pitchers last year were able to get A-Rod out on high heat: his bat was going in the opposite direction as the ball sped into the hitting zone.

So much for confidence, huh? Amazing how much more confident a player can be once he makes the mechanical adjustments that enable him to actually, like, hit the ball.

I don't blame guys like Bowa here as much I blame guys (and gals) like Olney, the writers and broadcasters who uncritically parrot the Sportsthink mantra as it's supplied to them, without resolving the obvious contradictions or even bothering to address the honest questions it raises. As one of my favoite colleagues at the IU School of Journalism used to put it, There's a difference between reporting and repeating. Plus, of course, the Sportsthink lens provides a far better story line: It's so much more compelling and even romantic to talk about confidence and determination than to get bogged down in the details of leg kicks and batting stances....

I'm kidding about the title for this post, incidentally. To my knowledge, A-Rod didn't need, or get, eyeglasses. But it wouldn't be much sillier for a sports analyst to mention that in passing, either.

* At least based on the usual standards and commensurate expectations that he has set for himself. In absolute terms, A-Rod, even at his "worst," has always been a superlative player and at this point of his 14-year career is as sure-fire a first-ballot Hall of Famer as there ever was.

4 comments:

Cal said...

Steve,

I love your baseball (and Sportsthink) posts. I say keep 'em coming. But I know I might be in the minority.

Firstly, the hitting coach Charley Lau taught that your head should go down as you swing so you can watch the ball as far as you can before it hits the bat. And he was the hitting coach for George Brett, who almost hit .400 in 1980. Charley Lau is deceased, but his son teaches hitting and has a Web site which has a picture and a quote from A-Rod to the son which ends " From your boy". I haven't read the article, so I guess Olney didn't ask how this new A-Rod swing contradicts with the Lau method.

I know this is probably too much inside baseball for this blog, but Mike Marshall (former Cy Young Award Winner) wrote on his Web Site how Rick Peterson (major league pitching coach) asked him how did he mentally get his pitchers ready to pitch. Marshall said he did that by getting them to throw quality pitches that batters can't hit. Notice Marshall said nothing about meditation or positive mental attitude or other Sportsthink mottoes.

I love sports, but I hate the way it is misappropriated for regular life. Have you ever noticed any Militarythink?

Steve Salerno said...

LOVE the Marshall line, Cal, which I hadn't heard before. Thanks for posting it... Really kind of cuts through the clutter, doesn't it?

Militarythink...now there's a complex topic (though of course there's always the famous line, I believe Carlin's, about "military intelligence" being an oxymoron). This may sound surprising coming from me, but since military ops concern themselves so heavily with process and tactics, I do--cautiously--think the military metaphor has greater application in the biz world than Sportsthink (which, in my opinion, as I've said in my book and several times on this blog, doesn't even really apply in sports). But here again, you have a lot of johnny-come-latelys who did their hitch for Uncle Sam and are looking for an interesting way to turn a profit on it, so they go into "business wargaming" with little or no real thought or commitment to making the appropriate transitions and translations. Maybe that's another book?

What about you, Cal? Somehow I get the feeling you're skeptical....

Cal said...

Steve,

I don't think Militarythink is as prevalent as Sportsthink. I thought it would get there because of the War on Terror. Maybe I'm jaded because of the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs. But I guess they were government programs. When I think of true war, I think of kill or be killed. The War on Terror is the only one that fits that description to me.

In corporate America, I can see some positives and negatives. Some positives might be measuring each task or establishing a hierarchy. A few of the negatives I believe would be the strict need to conform to protocols or the difficulty in questioning authority. I guess I don't like to be told how to think and that is my impression of the military. BTW, I never served so that is why it is an impression.

I also don't like these maxims like "too many generals and not enough soldiers." That is the only one I can think of now. I didn't (or don't) play war games and I am not a military history buff.

a/good/lysstener said...

As a baseball fan and admirer of A-Rod I could never understand why Yankee fans gave him such a hard time. Look at what he did last year and tell me how it's the embarrassment NY fans made it out to be? What in the world do they expect? I know this is a little off the theme for your post, Steve, which was about "sportsthink" but I figured it would be ok if I commented on the issue of A-Rod himself. I think it was especially ridiculous that people were calling him Mr. April. Logically, if somebody doesn't help win games in April then there's no September at all, right?