During the season highlights introduction to last night’s ALCS Wildcard Game between the Indians and the Rays, the voice-over narration caught my ear. It said something to the effect of: despite the great seasons of these teams, despite every every hit, every pitching masterpiece, every defensive gem, every walk-off home run, every injury comeback, every win streak, and every walk-off win, for these two teams, unless they win tonight, this past season was “all for naught.” This zero sum gain mantra is a summation of everything wrong with attitudes towards sport in this post-modern world.
In almost every sporting event, there is a team or individual that wins and one who loses. But losing is never “all for naught.” There are far too many ludicrous military or political analogies when it comes to sports, but most of the “winning” cliches out there come from military history. New York Senator William L. Macy coined, “To the victors belong the spoils.” Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.” Alex Ovechkin opined, “Nobody remembers losers.” That’s all complete bunk — to a limited extent in history, and definitely in sport. I certainly can’t remember all the teams who won championships against them, but I remember the Buffalo Bills valiantly losing four straight Super Bowls. Do you know who Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius are? Neither do I. They were the consuls who defeated Hannibal at the battle of Cannae. I know who Hannibal was. Do you know what team lost the most games in a row in the history of the NBA? I’ll bet you do…
The point is that the obsession with “championships” in sports are a completely invented 20th century phenomenon. “Championships” are marketing magic and clever salesmanship designed to make one game or series mean more than any other. That marketing has been wildly successful. Those games “matter” more because of the mob mentality of our culture. As a team wends its way toward a “championship,” they gain more exposure. The throng becomes more aware of them, and as the team wins or loses, more people remember them and form flash impressions of the individuals involved in those events. Then, fans tuck those championships and playoff victories into the consumer profile and personal zeitgeist they use to build up their identity.
But, unfortunately, as exposure grows, so does the iconography of the athletes’ accomplishments. The more people that know about a team or player, the more that player’s moments of victory or loss are symbolized by a mental picture of a made basket, a double play grounder, a dribbler through the legs, a teary post game interview, or a phrase that describes it all. “The Thrilla in Manilla.” “Laces out.” “Red Right 88.” “The Catch.” “The Shot.” “The Drive.” In our vast information age, we need markers to symbolize and categorize information. But what’s lost in this iconography is the process — the history — that led to those iconic moments: a season’s worth of games, practices, at bats, free-throws, rehab stints, wins, and losses.
This loss of respect for history and process is at the root of the corruption of sport. “Winning” becomes more important than how a team or person won — what they went through to get to that moment. “Winning,” as Charlie Sheen famously proclaimed, becomes everything: a one word declaration of victory, identity, superiority, morality, justification, and process. Because of this, victories are praised and then vacated in college sports, whole decades of baseball become steroid addled statistical anomalies; schools, from junior high to the Ivy League sacrifice their academic and institutional mission; football players become concussion-wrecked, walking cardio-pulminary nightmares; all in the pursuit of that great icon: the trophy.
And I guess, what I’m hoping for, what I’m asking, is for everyone to step back from the brink. Remember the process. Enjoy the process. Live in the moment. Be the fan, the coach, the player that remembers and enjoys each day you get to do or watch something you love, and if you don’t enjoy it, and if it only brings you misery, go do something else. I got to coach my daughter’s 3rd grade basketball team last year, and I hope to again this year. It was one of the best experiences of my life, and definitely the best experience with sport that I’ve ever had. There’s few greater joys than watching people you care about practice and get better at something through teaching, listening, and working. There’s a divine joy in the elan of seeing someone do something they’ve never done before, something they previously thought impossible, or something honed through pure dedication, whether that be watching an eight-year-old make her first layup or seeing a goofy seven foot center correctly hedge a pick and roll.
I’m not trying to play relativistic moral victory badminton here. There’s a reason score is kept. The Indians lost. It sucks. The loss was tough, but fair, and the Rays have developed a process of developing players, teams, tactics, and culture that the Indians ought to emulate. Though the Indians do not get to play on this year, their season was a fine one. I hate the term, “something to build on,” but we can all agree that improvement was shown, and that there is much more hope for the future for the professional sports teams of northeast Ohio than there was even three weeks ago. The Browns seem to be improving (their defense was smothering last week). The Indians just gave Cleveland a September that we should not forget, and the Cavs are just re-beginning the most important part of the process.
I can’t wait to watch the Cavs grow this year, because all summer long, it seems as if this apparently decent, hardworking group of guys has embraced the process. Everyone seems intent on bonding, practicing, exercising: pursuing excellence. Kyrie Irving has said that it is his goal to be the greatest player in the NBA. I just hope he realizes that greatness, despite the bombastic boasts of Michael Jordan, does not require a trophy. Greatness requires dedication to the process.
I keep talking about this ethereal concept of process. Is it some real Yoda-esque, pseudo-eastern philosophy mumbo-jumbo? Yes? No? Maybe? I’m simply talking about developing a way for people to strive for excellence in the moment on a daily basis, and to remember that the moments along the way — the journey — are possibly more important than the goal. I hate the term, “the right way.” Everyone talks about doing things “the right way.” I don’t believe that there’s a “right way,” for anything. There’s almost always a way to improve how a person or organization goes about things.
But a mental focus and consistency in the way one goes about finding out what works and improving upon it is what leads to 10-game “winning” streaks, developing a right handed jump shot, figuring out how to get nine-year-olds to listen, and learning how to cut to the bucket when the ball isn’t in your hands. The process requires a humility to know that your way of doing things can always be improved; trust in the people you work with to be honest with you and to work hard with you — enjoy their company; get up and work on it every day. I’m treading dangerously into upper management Tony Robbins B.S. here, and believe me, anyone whose worked with me knows this kind of life attitude is a daily struggle, and more wishful thinking than anything. But, I’m hoping that this attitude, while there’s no guarantee of making us “winners,” will make us better people, which, frankly, is more important than “winning.”
It seems like the plight of the Northeast Ohio sports fan is defined by the term, “waiting for next year,” and waiting for the other shoe to drop. It seems defined by the haunting question, “when will we get our championship?” Stop obsessing. Appreciate the process. Watch a young man or woman mature into someone we’re proud to identify with. Take joy in the little improvements: see someone throw a 100 mph fastball, take a charge, help up a teammate, or close out on a shooter on the correct side. Remember that with each of these moments, there’s a history of thousands of hours that led to that person being able to accomplish that feat. Enjoy moments of greatness in their own right, rather than as simply rungs on the way to a trophy. Because even if no one remembers them but you, those moments are not, “all for naught.”