Every now and again, I begin a blog post without having any idea where it’s going. OK, that’s not exactly true — I start MOST of my blog posts that way. But I start this one even more uncertain than usual. The following is just an emptying of my mind. There are four topics clanking around up there. The intentional walk. The dunk. Phil Mickelson. The U.S. Women’s soccer team. As far as I know, they have nothing to do with each other. And I don’t really know what I feel about ANY of this. There are no conclusions that follow, no hard opinions, no certainties whatsoever. It’s just throwing paint against a wall …
If you read this with any regularity, I’ve probably already bored you with stories about my two daughters. Elizabeth and Katie. They are very different. Elizabeth is 9; she’s dramatic and sensitive and silly. Katie is 6; she’s a force of nature. We all watched the women’s World Cup Final on Sunday — or, anyway, they watched parts of it between doll sessions — and they had different rooting interests. Elizabeth did not have a strong rooting interest, but she dreamily rooted for Japan because of the earthquake and tsunami devastation there; she wanted to believe what they were saying on TV — that a Japanese victory would provide a little relief and joy for that shattered nation. Katie, meanwhile, rooted for the United States because she intends to be on the U.S. World Cup team someday.
That more or less fits their personalities. Elizabeth is only fleetingly interested in winning. Katie lives for it. As parents, we constantly find ourselves battling those tendencies … that is, we’re always trying to add a bit of ambition to Elizabeth’s schedule and trying to temper Katie’s fury. At the same time, we are always trying to foster Elizabeth’s good heart and trying to stay out of the way of Katie natural competitiveness and enthusiasm. I’d say our batting average is about like Adam Dunn’s. It really is a lot easier raising Chia Pets.
But watching them watch the World Cup made me think about something else — what do I teach them about winning?
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Have you ever noticed that many of the best sports movies end in defeat. This isn’t always true, of course. Hoosiers ends in unabashed victory. The Natural ends with the ball shattering lights and a father playing catch with his son (that’s the movie; the book is much darker). But Rocky loses to Apollo Creed in the first movie. The Bad News Bears lose their last game. Raging Bull is about losing everything. Fast Eddie wins but finds it empty in The Hustler. The Peaches lose their last game in A League Of Their Own. I didn’t like Tin Cup, but many people did, and that was a celebration of defeat. Crash Davis doesn’t make it back to the big leagues. Bran’s Song ends in death. Eight Men Out ends in banishment. The Indians do not win the World Series in Major League (giving us the lamentable Major League 2).
The point is that in movies, there’s an emotion that might be even stronger than victory. That emotion is tied up in valiant effort. Rocky would not have been nearly as good a movie had he won. He won while losing. That’s the point — winning while losing — at least until the next five Rocky movies …
But, you will say, that’s art. That’s not sports. In sports, there is winning … and there is losing … and there are the intense emotions tied to each. The term “moral victory” is used more often in mockery than in celebration. The idea of winning ugly trumps the concept of losing with honor. Ask yourself the question: If your favorite team can win the Super Bowl on a bad call or lose on the correct one, which would you choose? Is it even a choice?
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People send me emails all the time about intentional walk scenarios … that is they want to know if I think that the intentional walk makes STRATEGIC sense if, say, a truly terrible hitter is on deck. Sometimes they want to know if I agreed with an intentional walk that turned around a seemingly hopeless inning or whatever.
I do have some strategic thoughts about the intentional walk. I think it’s wildly overused by managers. But sometimes it works. Sometimes it makes strategic sense. My overpowering thoughts about it, though, have nothing to do with strategy. They are visceral. I HATE the intentional walk. I hate it because I think it’s anti-competitive, and I think it’s cowardly, and I think it goes against the very reason why we watch sports. Baseball teams should not have an easy option to avoid pitching to Albert Pujols or Miggy Cabrera or Evan Longoria when the game is on the line. It is, to me, a flaw in the game’s rules — I love Bill James’ suggestion that a player should be allowed to turn down a walk — and one that teams flaunt regularly.
That said, do I BLAME them for flaunting that rule? Well, maybe I do, but I realize that in this I’m in the vast, vast, vast minority. Herm Edwards had it right. You play to win the game. Ask yourself the question: If your favorite team can have a .01% better chance of winning World Series Game 7 by intentionally walking Josh Hamilton or Ryan Braun, well, what would you do? Would you challenge him? Would you try to win the hard away, by beating the other team’s best hitter? Or would you choose the tiniest statistical advantage no matter how boring and apathetic it might be? What would you choose?
Is it even a choice?
* * *
Phil Mickelson was five shots back at the British Open on Sunday when he went on a charge for the ages. He birdied the second hole. He birdied the fourth. The wind was blowing hard. The course was playing hard. He birdied the sixth hole. He made a long eagle putt at No. 7. He birdied the 10th hole. He was SIX UNDER through 10 holes. He was tied for the lead. He was in position to win the golf tournament. He had a shot of shooting in the 50s. He was playing golf as few have ever played it.
And then, the magic dried up. This is golf. You don’t get to stay at that level for very long. Mickelson missed a short putt at the 11th, and he bogeyed the 13th hole, the 15th hole, the 16th hole, and on 18 he pulled his approach shot about 40 yards to the right of the green, so far right that it hit somebody like 25 rows up in the bleachers. He finished second behind Darren Clarke, three shots back.
In many ways, from what I read and heard, people decided this was a synopsis of Mickelson’s career — brilliant and flawed, magical and doomed, spectacular and inevitably defeated. I can’t argue the point. But I kind of wondered if we might look at it differently. I’m thrilled for Darren Clarke, who played so well and seems such a decent man. But couldn’t you at least make the argument that Phil Mickelson won too? I mean, if I remember anything from the 2011 British Open, it will be his amazing first 10 holes on Sunday. He was so good that I watched those 10 holes on tape delay … and I cannot imagine anything less useful than watching golf on tape delay. He was so good that I found myself, in the early stages of learning how to play golf, swinging a golf club just because he inspired me to do it.
You know what it reminded me of, in a weird way? Josh Hamilton in that home run derby. You remember? Hamilton was this amazing comeback story, and he bashed home run after home run in the Derby. It was awe inspiring. Hamilton didn’t WIN that Derby, you might remember, because the rules are absurd and ever-changing. But nobody cared about that. He DID win. I know this because I do not remember who actually won the pointless thing, and I don’t care enough to look it up.
The best at their best can show us what’s possible. Didn’t Phil Mickelson do that on Sunday? I think he did. And isn’t that just about the best thing in sports? Isn’t that even better, in a weird way, than winning?
Or is that only true in movies and home run derbies?
* * *
Elizabeth cheered when Japan finished off the United States women in the shootout. Katie cried. Elizabeth explained that she was happy for Japan after all its people have been through, and anyway, winning isn’t the most important thing. Katie grumbled about being lectured and cried because she liked the U.S. team, and she liked Hope Solo, and, as mentioned, she wants to play on her team someday.
Margo, my wife, definitely veered toward Katie. She too was rooting hard for the U.S., and she thought they blew it. They were clearly the superior team. The first 22 or so minutes — as I tweeted — it looked like the United States was on the power play. They seemed to have at least three more players than Japan. And the Japanese were helpless. They could not get the ball out of their own end. The U.S. had opportunity after opportunity. Abby Wambach’s strike hit the crossbar. Three or four or five other chances were simply missed. The score after that 22-minute flurry was 0-0.
The U.S. twice led by a goal late — Japan scored the equalizer with ten minutes left in regulation, and the second equalizer with something like three minutes left in overtime. Both were dreadful goals, especially the regulation time goal which featured a calamitous series of American defensive miscues. And the shootout was a sporting disaster; the United States players either missed or were stuffed on its first three chances. Margo flatly said — and I saw some friends on Twitter make the same point — that high-level women athletes should be treated precisely like men high-level men athletes, and that to do anything else is to patronize them. If a heavily favored U.S. men’s team in any sport had thoroughly outplayed its opponent, twice blown leads and then failed miserably in the decisive moments, there would be nothing feel good-about it at all.
And I see that point. But then I think about the dunk …
* * *
I like women’s basketball. I don’t like it for politically correct purposes or because I have young daughters. I like it because I like pretty much any sport that is played with passion and enthusiasm and skill. I like it because there are aspects of the women’s game — perimeter passing, outside shooting, fundamental rebounding — that I miss in the game.
That’s fine. That’s just me. I know many people don’t like women’s basketball. They find it boring. They struggle with the pace. They find it disconcerting — they have grown so used to watching basketball above the rim that they find they cannot watch basketball below. That’s fine too. People don’t need a reason to dislike a sport. We’re not talking about required courses here. If you like NASCAR, follow NASCAR. If you don’t, don’t. Same goes with women’s basketball, golf, poker, baseball, tennis, MMA, whatever. Enjoy what you enjoy. Ignore what you ignore.
The only thing that bugs me is when people say that they don’t watch women’s basketball because women don’t dunk … or some offshoot of that sentiment. There are two reasons it bugs me. One … it’s utterly disingenuous. The people who complain that women don’t dunk would not watch the games if women did dunk.
But two: Why should women play exactly like men? Why can’t they create their own game? The dunk is fine, it’s thrilling sometimes, overbearing a lot of the time, but it’s not the singular thing that makes basketball great. I believe that in many ways the dunk has overshadowed some of the things that DO make basketball great — the flow of the game, great passing, the hook shot, back-to-the-basket moves, mid-range shooting and so on. Who is working on that stuff when they can be working on dunks?
You know: It was fun when baseball pitchers had wildly different motions. It was fun when football quarterbacks weren’t all 6-foot-4 and could throw spirals through metal safes. It was fun when tennis styles were wildly different, when golf swings were wildly different, when sports made room for innovation and evolution rather than ramming it down our throats that there is only one right way to do something.
My feeling is: Let women’s basketball evolve on its own. Why the heck should they dunk? It’s not like men’s basketball is the ideal. It isn’t. NBA basketball is often artistic and athletic and wonderful. And it is also often boring and motionless and seemingly without passion. It’s a different game. Let the women’s game become what it will become.
* * *
A day after the World Cup Final is over, a highlight of one of the U.S. women crying pops on the screen. Elizabeth looks over. She says: “She shouldn’t have cried. It’s only a game. They tried their best, and they should congratulate the other team. Crying makes them look like poor sports.”
I am not sure what to say to her about this. These are multi-layered emotions, I think, the stuff that covers winning and losing. There are those who think winning is the whole point, and they’re not necessarily wrong. There are those who think joyous competition is the whole point, and they’re not necessarily wrong either. People have different ideas of sportsmanship, of competitiveness, of the ways to handle defeat. When I was Elizabeth’s age, I would not eat when the Cleveland Browns lost. I could not sleep. On Fridays before games, I would feel anxiety all through school. On Mondays after defeats, I would feel sick. It wasn’t healthy — I’m sure I understood that even then — but it was what I knew. It was who I was then. My very nature built around whether or not Brian Sipe could bring the Browns back in the final minutes.
Elizabeth doesn’t feel that way. She loved watching women play sports on television. She got into the story of Japan because she has a good little heart. She was happy for the winner, and a touch sad for the loser, but in the end I think she figured that all that really mattered was that they got to play this great game in front of so many people, that they got to show off the skills they had developed over a lifetime of practice, that they all tried their best. Maybe that pushes against our sports society. Maybe that’s not how we treat men’s sports. Maybe that cuts against our notion of the importance of winnings. But it makes complete sense to her. And … well … why shouldn’t she feel that way? What’s wrong with enjoying the game, appreciating the moment, celebrating the winner without diminishing the loser?
I don’t know. It’s a tough one. But it was interesting … I ended up feeling that odd but remarkable feeling a parent sometimes feels. I did not have a thing to teach her about winning and losing. She taught me.