Saturday, October 01, 2011

There Is No I in "Team" But There Are Several in "Idiotic"

As we sat in traffic Thursday evening contemplating the baseball universe, my son Josh had a question.

"You've been to them Dad. Are the other big pro sports town as obsessed and hung up on the idea of team as people are here in Boston?"

I was proud. Unlike me, Josh is a lifelong Boston resident. It takes insight for such a person to put their finger on a universal civic psychosis.

My answer came quickly. "No, not really. They're meaner in Philly, lots meaner, but don't look for motives when teams fail. They just boo. And they take it out on individual players more than the group."

I call (and have done so for decades) the local reaction to both sports failure and success the Chip Hilton Syndrome, after the sports books for boys series of my youth. In Boston, professional sports teams are held to a standard of sports behavior that was a myth in the 1930s, let alone today. It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you look like you're playing the game. Present a cheerful, brave and especially reverent image about your sport and Boston fans think victory is the inevitable result. Doing so kept Trot Nixon popular through several very unproductive seasons.

Losing, like say a historic September gag job, MUST be the result of violations of the sports code of morals. Athletes and teams fail because they're bad, not because they played badly.

The most extreme case of this fallacy is the oldest. When Ted Williams was on good Red Sox teams that couldn't quite beat better Yankees teams, and blew a World Series, he was the problem. Williams was "selfish" because he walked too much. This was a minority view, but that even existed at all doesn't speak well of our fair city's sports history.

The truth that it's hard to win in professional sports, and that's why most teams don't escapes this burg. So does the truth that professional sports are hard to play well. Above all, Boston won't acknowledge that the first two truths make pro teams collections of gifted men with an odd bipolar syndrome in which total self-confidence and neurotic insecurity wage a constant war for control of their psyches. This leads to less than ideal group dynamics in adversity.

Look, it's simple. There is "bad" behavior as defined by Boston fans and oh boy especially media in every locker room and clubhouse of every team every day. When the team is winning, it ignores it. When it loses, it doesn't. Defeat makes everybody unhappy and crabby. Since defeat makes fans unhappy and crabby, you'd think they'd get that.

Pitchers drinking beer in the clubhouse on their off days? Somewhere Mickey Mantle and Grover Cleveland Alexander are shocked. I can top what is allegedly the player behavior that got Terry Francona separated from the Red Sox. How about a player drinking beer in the clubhouse during a game in which he pitched?

In the summer of 2004 in Anaheim, Derek Lowe got knocked out of a game in short order. Things hadn't been going well for Derek, or the team for that matter. When reporters came into the clubhouse after the game, Lowe was at his locker. He was glassy-eyed full-on shattered, so much so several coaches suggested he not talk to us.

Three months later, Derek Lowe was among the heroes of the greatest playoff comeback in baseball history and a member of the first Red Sox world championship team in 86 years. I submit that if drinking in the clubhouse didn't affect that team, it didn't affect the 2011 squad much either.

Was there griping in this summer's Sox clubhouse? I say yes because there's been griping in every clubhouse since there have been clubhouses. I'll bet the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings bitched about their travel schedule. Bitching is one of those things ballplayers do to pass all that daily downtime. It's white noise.

Was some of that griping about John Lackey and Carl Crawford. It'd be weird if it wasn't. Use empathy here, reader. Imagine if at your place of employment a couple of new workers at the very job you have were brought in and paid three times what you make and then they began screwing up all the time. Would you be friends with them? Would you complain behind their backs? Be honest, now.

The prosaic facts of the Great Choke of 2011 are only slightly psychological. They start with performance, with known weaknesses of good players getting the best of them at the worst possible time. When Jon Lester fails, he struggles with control. Josh Beckett tends to wear down as a season goes on. David Ortiz had proven he can go a month with an extra base hit in the last two seasons. And so on.

Slumps are contagious. Locked together in small spaces (dugouts, clubhouses, buses, airplanes) nearly every waking hour, the Sox, like all slumping teams, saw their collective neurotic insecurities rout their collective self-confidence by a score of about 17-2. And then the losing began in earnest. It may satisfy fans, media, and ass-covering front office types to say Boston's lost September was because the team didn't care enough or try enough, but when good teams slump/choke, it's almost always because they cared too much and tried too hard. Baseball is not a game that surrenders to simple willpower.

The moronic morality play concept of sports does a disservice to the more interesting reality of how games are won or lost. It's also fraudulent as morality. Many a nice guy has indeed finished last. They were still nice, they just didn't play very well. A guy's ERA is not shorthand for the state of his soul.

Games are played by human beings, complex, difficult, unusual human beings. Demanding that athletes show no flaws is to demand they deny their humanity. And as Abraham Lincoln once noted, people with damned few vices tend to have damned few virtues.


At 11:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fully agree.

If Dave Roberts was a tenth of a second slower, the exact same complaints about Tito would have been made about the 2004 team.


Post a Comment

<< Home