Thursday, October 28, 2004

Sports Stuff from Around Boston

Wow, when did Boston become the center of the sporting world? Did I miss a memo or something?

:: Last week I approvingly linked a bit of Gregg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback column, in which Easterbrook basically says he's sick of the New England Stupid Patriots. In this week's Tuesday Morning Quarterback, Easterbrook revisits this topic after some e-mailers attempt to set him straight. Here's the relevant portion of the article:

Many, many readers objected to my "unpatriotic" declaration that I am sick of the New England Patriots. Not that I don't think they are a worthy team -- remember, I praised them for unselfishness and hard work -- just that I'm sick of them and want somebody else to win at this point. Readers objected to my saying the Flying Elvii [Easterbrook's nickname for the StuPats] streak was partly based on good luck, and also my saying the streak was partly based on New England avoiding injuries. The latter comment was intended as tongue-in-cheek, since the Patriots had a ton of injuries in 2003. Reader Michael Logan noted, "If that was that a tongue-in-cheek observation, it was very oblique." Yeah, it was, my bad.

Charles Moylan of Arlington, Mass., performed an incredibly scientifically advanced analysis of all close-finish Patriots games during the streak, and maintains that in the close-finish games, chance favored the Patriots' opponents more often than it did the Patriots. Jon Thiele, a Packers fan currently living in Bosnia, countered TMQ's analysis with this quotation from Catherine the Great: "Good fortune is not as blind as it is generally thought to be. It is often nothing more than the result of sound, consistent actions that go unnoticed by the crowd." Laura Ross of State College, Pa., opined, "Yes, there were some calls that went in the favor of the Patriots, but in every game you will find a call that is controversial." Now for some complaints in haiku:

TMQ must love
hate mail, speaking ill of Pats.
Here's to twenty more!
-- Jeffrey Smith, Albany, N.Y.

Health of Tom Brady
not the only reason for
wins in New England.
-- Charles Moylan, Arlington, Mass.

Pats' streak due to luck?
Ye gods! Give due credit to
players and coaches.
-- Barry Brown, Wanship, Utah

Do not resent a
long winning streak: New England
not a me-first team.
-- Jose Marquez, Somerville, Mass.

I would rank the factors in the Patriots' success thusly -- hard work; team spirit; excellent coaching (New England is the most film-studied team in the league and yet every game seems to have a surprise for opponents); avoidance of boasting and preening; luck. Note that I don't list talent. At the NFL level, every team has talent -- teams that are heavy with talent get pounded week after week. Poor coaching, me-first attitudes and boasting can go a long way toward neutralizing talent. Often losing teams do more boasting and preening than winning ones, while there are some coaches who can take average players and win and others who can take great players and lose. New England has the first type of coaches.

Nevertheless, luck cannot be discounted. Many Flying Elvii faithful took most offense at my statement that chance was a factor in the winning streak. Americans seem loath to accept that luck plays a role in our life-outcomes -- we want to believe anyone who succeeds does so on hard work alone, or any team that wins does so strictly because it is deserving. But while I don't think luck is the main factor in our lives, it surely is important. Merely being born into an above-median-income family, for example, dramatically increases your chance of graduating from college and earning high wages in adulthood, and this holds across racial and ethnic groups. There's a hard-work element in who becomes rich or famous, or secures in a nice suburban lifestyle, but also a luck element; it would be well for Americans to bear this in mind, for the disadvantaged often end up where they do owing in part to bad luck. And you can't win 21 games in a row unless your luck is good -- unless the league's best kicker misses a field goal against you on the final play, and so on. There's no shame in the successful admitting they have benefited from luck: In fact, admitting this is admirable. I recommend to readers the important recent book Something for Nothing by the social critic Jackson Lears, which explores why Americans are loath to admit the role luck plays in our lives.

First, he says that he was just kidding about the injuries, which I guess pretty much makes my own agreement on that point full of crap. (But again, I'm curious as to what kind of injuries the StuPats suffered last year -- a few different players each week getting hurt for a short time, or significant starters losing big chunks of the entire season? They're different animals, and it remains my contention that the StuPats' system -- which I've believed to be the big way that teams will prove successful in the NFL's era of free agency -- is particularly well-suited to neutralizing the former.)

To reform my own point, I don't attribute the StuPats' current level of success to luck. I attribute their winning streak to luck. There's a difference. Winning fourteen games in a season is only partly attributable to luck, as Easterbrook notes. Winning fourteen games in a row is, in my view, far more attributable to luck, to say nothing of winning twenty-one in a row.

(I generally agree with Easterbrook that we're generally unwilling to grant the degree to which luck governs things in our lives. Sure, we admit it in cases like Ritchie Valens boarding that plane in Clear Lake after "winning" a coin toss, but other things don't seem so rooted in luck. I can attribute my current success at The Store to the hard work I've put in there, but getting the job in the first place required immense luck that someone else got fired at roughly the same time that I applied. Also, when I was choosing colleges way back in my senior year of high school, I narrowed my decision down to two schools, one of which I attended, where I met my future wife. The decision was very close, and I can perfectly well conceive going the other way. Of course, then I'd have met someone else who would have been my future wife, but the point remains: chance governs more of what happens to us than we admit.)

:: Congratulations, of course, to the World Series Champion Boston Red Sox. (That felt really weird to type.) I don't have much to say about the Series itself, except for three observations, two of which are related to stuff I saw on TV. First, Tony LaRussa has now managed in four World Series (1988, 1989, 1990, and 2004), and only one of those (1988) was not a sweep. His Oakland A's were the sweepers in 1989, while they were swept in 1990 as were his Cardinals in 2004. Second, I laughed when Fox Sports cut to crowds in the Boston streets, and it just looked like a thousand people wandering about slowly, as if in a daze. One imagines a city waking up from the celebration, realizing that it all really did happen, and now saying, "Gee, now what?" And third -- and this is naughty, but I can't help it -- Fox Sports sent a rather attractive female reporter down to the Boston clubhouse to do the postgame stuff, with the presentations of the trophy and the MVP award and talking to players in and around the myriad champagne dousings. I have to admit a small bit of disappointment that this reporter didn't get drenched in champagne. I know, I know....

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