Saturday, October 18, 2008

What character! What resilience! What horsecrap!

When you consider that I began researching the idea for SHAM back in 2003, then spent a couple years writing and editing the book, then did about 250 radio and TV shows on the subject, then launched this blogwhich for most of three years focused almost entirely on self-help topics—you can understand why a guy might tire of talking about the SHAMscape. But it's playoff season in baseball—always a showcase for championship-caliber Sportsthink, i.e., the notion that athletes and even whole teams can will themselves to win sporting events. And never has that notion been more conspicuously on display than over the past 24 hours, since the Boston Red Sox capped off Thursday's (admittedly stunning) 8-7 comeback victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Championship Series (LCS). On TV in particular, the tone of the reporting has been darn close to hysterical in some quarters.

For those who aren't into baseball, the LCS is a best-of-seven event. Before Thursday night's game the Rays had won
three of the first four, meaning they could clinch a trip to the World Series with a victory. They had a 7-0 lead over the Sox going into the home half of the seventh inning. Then the Rays changed pitchers, all hell broke loose and the Sox ended up pulling the game out in the bottom of the ninth.

And the post-mortems? Typical was this headline, from The Providence* Journal:

"Youkilis, Red Sox Didn't Stop Believing." (Kevin Youkilis is a key Sox player)
Or there was this opening paragraph, from a piece on
"There is no burying them. There is no eliminating them. There is no getting rid of the Red Sox, who keep finding new ways to challenge themselves, to torture themselves, to toy with the rest of the American League in October..."
Later in the same FOX piece, one of the BoSox hitting stars, JD Drew, was quoted thusly: "There's a lot of fight in our dugout."

Meanwhile, here's Ken Davidoff lionizing the Sox in Newsday: "What character. What resilience. What execution." (At first blush, it might appear that Davidoff gets props for including execution, which at least points to physical skill, among his silly emotional intangibles. But as used here, the term implies that the Sox were "executing" conscious control over such things as, say, the precise part of the bat where the hitter made contact with the pitch, thus permitting the Sox to hit those crucial home runs. If that's so...then why don't they do it all the time?)

Tim Kurchin, a top baseball analyst for ESPN, seemed to think that Red Sox manager Terry Francona paved the way for the comeback by setting the proper attitudinal tone. Francona is known for his imperturbable nature, and Kurchin showed shots of the manager being duly imperturbable in the dugout, even after the Sox fell behind by seven. Here again, the implication was that the Sox players looked over at their manager and said to themselves, "Gee, Terry's not very upset about all this. Terry still thinks we can win. So I guess we better go out and do just that, then, huh?" (Are we to assume that if players look over at their manager and he appears a bit rattled, they just go back to their lockers and cry? They don't even try to hit the ball when they go up to the plate?)

Folks, in order to accept any of the aboveand, in general, any of the typical Sportsthink chatter about character and determination and fighting spirit and the will to win and the heart of a champion and the rest of ithere are just a few of the other things that you must also accept:

1. that this indomitable force known as the Boston Red Sox, who apparently can conjure victory on demand, elected not to exercise this divine gift in three of the first four games, thereby allowing themselves to fall to the brink of elimination. And further,

2. that the Red Sox allowed themselves to lose two of those games at home, breaking the hearts of their adoring fans. Let me emphasize: If you accept that they won Thursday's game by an intentional act of will, you also have to accept that they lost those other games on purpose, or at least through a failure of determination and will. There's really no other way to look at it.

3. that slugger David Ortiz and the aforementioned JD Drew, both heroes in Thursday's game, could've just as easily unfurled their heroics much earlier, but weren't yet motivated to do so. (Question: When you're an athlete capable of summoning miracles, how do you know when you've waited just long enough to let those miracles kick in?) In fact, if David Ortiz had within him The Power to Win, why did he have just one hit in 17 post-season at-bats prior to his pivotal home r
un Thursday? I guess he accidentally left his "fight" at home during all those prior games.

4. that the Rays
who performed masterfully in the first four games, to the extent of overcoming this magical voodoo the Sox possesssuddenly lost their own will to win. Indeed, several sportscasters and beat writers opined that the "pressure" got to the Tampa team, and another ESPN expert now writes that the Rays "can't let their thoughts betray them." Let me get this straight: The same team that had kicked the reigning World Champions' butts in three out of four games, including two games at the champion's own ballpark; the same team that had built a seven-run margin in Thursday's game, and knew that it still had two games' worth of cushion left even if this lead somehow did fall apart; the same team that knew that worst-case, it would play those two remaining games in front of its home fans in Florida; hell, the same team that had won four out of six from the Red Sox in two critical September series in order to help position itself for the playoffs in the first place... That team suffered an acute, inexplicable loss of poise going into the final three innings?

As Stossel likes to say, give me a break. (Great, great book, by the way.) From now on, people, let's just write/talk about what happened on the field, and leave the magical thinking to Rhonda Byrne et al.

* Rhode Island.


Anonymous said...

This is so funny, I was watching ESPN the other night thinking to myself, I wonder what Steve is gonig to say about this! I agree with you, they make ballgames into some huge melodrama when it just comes down to who gets the job done. And nobody really knows why.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, apparently the Sox fans didn't begin applying the Law of Attraction until the 7th inning. :-)

All absurdity aside, I think Cark pegged it pretty well... It is all about melodrama. If it weren't, game announcers would do little but announce players' names when they came to bat or made a significant play.

The need to attempt to communicate the excitement of the game began when games were first broadcast over the radio. Fans listening at home couldn't see the action, so the announcers had to really play up anything that was going on. Dizzy Dean was one of the best at this, his play-by-play markedly more "colorful" than other announcers of his day. The "analysis" of the action was probably more to establish the announcers' in-depth knowledge of the game than anything else.

Like any other "policy," once this got started, there was no stopping it. Perhaps a few announcers actually believe the swill they shovel, but I'd bet most are just doing what they think they're supposed to do, much like the radio personalities who adopt their "radio voices"; an obvious and transparent affectation, but one that is perpetuated, nonetheless.

Steve Salerno said...

My younger son, who is a diehard Yankee fan, has noticed that the Yankee radio broadcasters employ that same tactic to this day. He'll sometimes watch/listen to a "split" broadcast of the game, such that he's got, say, the ESPN version on TV--but he's got the sound muted so he can listen to the radio version via internet out of New York. And quite frequently when it's apparent from the first that a fly ball is going to be caught rather easily by an outfielder, the radio announcer nonetheless will shoot for faux excitement by making it sound like the ball's got a chance to get out of the park for an HR. Says my son, "There's almost no such thing as a routine play on radio."

Chad Hogg said...

I have to somewhat disagree with you today. Essentially, the sportswriters and broadcasters are saying that emotion, temperament, and attitude had *some* effect on the outcome of the game. You are arguing against the strawman that such factors completely control the outcome of the game.

The differences in the physical skills of the players has the most significant impact on the outcome of a ball game, and luck or random chance is also quite important (otherwise, why play a 7-game series?). However, I think those intangibles absolutely can have a small effect.

You might say that any MLB team is made up of professionals, who try their very hardest everytime they step onto the field, but I find that claim very dubious. I don't follow baseball that much, but there are certainly NFL teams on which many of the players would have stopped caring when in that deep of a hole. And I absolutely think that a player who cares is more successful than one just going through the motions -- just compare Randy Moss's last few seasons with the Raiders against his first with the Patriots.

Steven Sashen said...

Looking at that game, 2 things are clear:

1) The Rays had an unconscious intention to lose, probably because of something that happened to all of them as children.

2) God, previously a proven Rays fan, was tired of creating wars and "natural disasters," took a break to watch the game with Jesus who, in an act of heavenly defiance, chose to make the Red Sox win.

Sometimes, I don't understand how you miss the obvious, Steve.

Steve Salerno said...

Chad, to really address your rebuttal in meaningful depth would require a book, or at least a chapter--and it just so happens there is such a chapter, in a book called "SHAM." ;) (I even know the author.)

I won't argue that mental attitude might make some difference. But of all the sports where mental conditioning applies, I think baseball is pretty low on the totem pole. It's such a finesse sport where there are so many variables to consider, and we never really know whether a given mental attitude is a plus or a minus. (To use just one example I've used before, is being "up" for a game a good thing or a bad thing, in a pitcher? I'm not at all sure we can say. I've heard "up-ness" credited for causing pitchers to "reach down inside themselves and find that something extra when they needed it"--but I've also heard it blamed for causing pitchers to overthrow, lose their focus, make bonehead plays, etc. And if you can't predict the effect of a given emotional state ahead of time, then what's the point of even talking about it? It's like if I said to you, Chad, "Here, drink some of this. It might make you invincible--but it might also kill you. Then again, it might do nothing at all." Would you drink it? More to the point, where's the value in my even recommending that you drink it?

RevRon's Rants said...

Better keep an eye on those authors, Steve. Rumor has it the guy is sleeping with your wife! :-)

Elizabeth said...

"What character. What resilience. What execution."

I thought you guys were talking about Obama... ;)

Steve Salerno said...

Rumor has it the guy is sleeping with your wife...

Hey, even I don't get to do that.

Steve Salerno said...

Here we go again:

And now, according to, the Rays lost Saturday night's game to the Sox because they couldn't get the previous night's game out of their minds. They're still intimidated, the momentum has shifted, they're back on their heels, blah blah blah.

See, there's no such thing as just winning or losing a ball game anymore.

Steve Salerno said...

So now this morning I heard at least two different sports commentators taking the same basic approach to the Rays' win, talking about how the Red Sox's "winning determination" was defeated, in the end, by the "greater team chemistry" of the Rays.

It amazes me, the way in which, no matter what happens on the field, our so-called sports gurus will do and say almost anything to take the emphasis off skill and make success all about attitude. Having built up this nonsensical conceit about the Sox once again being "the team of destiny" after Boston's victories in the previous two games, the beat writers and sportscasters had to find an airy explanation that trumped even that--and in this the one they came up with. Unreal.

Dimension Skipper said...

Competing theories on what goes into fielding a fly ball. No mention of sheer will and determination being a factor.

Steve Salerno said...

Once again, DS, I thank you for providing a scientific anchor to the discussion. I've always been fascinated by the role of physics/science in explicating sports, and I remember being all caught up in that debate, some years back, over whether or not a curve ball did indeed curve--as opposed to its being just an optical illusion. Of course, that "controversy" has now been settled by the likes of Doppler imaging, wind-tunnel vectors and other science: Yes, curve balls curve. Just ask anyone who's ever tried to hit off a guy like Barry Zito, back before he unaccountably lost all of his skills. (Or maybe he just lost his "heart"?)

Nowadays I'm deeply into the science of rotational vs. linear mechanics in hitting, and the raging debate over whether or not so-called "torque-based hitting" really provides the power/distance advantage that is claimed for it. Not that any of you asked....

Dimension Skipper said...

Certainly one of the hardest-hitting attacks against Obama to date... on which team Obama's rooting for in the World Series.


(Go Phils!)