Why the Series, Calls & Sport Matter

III. Why it does & doesn’t matter

On one level, perhaps it turned out the questionable obstruction call didn’t matter, or mattered in the opposite direction from what we might more naively have expected, sapping something from the game-winner’s spirit by the nature of the “win,” while juicing the loser’s determination. As of last night, after all, we know the Red Sox won every subsequent game to take the series, rendering the obstruction call a box-score footnote.

And the win was beautiful to behold–Big Papi, young Bogaerts, Gomes in left, Victorino at the plate, Uehara on the mound to close out each 9th….The artistry of pitchers on both sides was a wonder, as was the ability of some batters to adapt. In Big Papi’s case, David Ortiz provoked the opposition to capitulate, being intentionally walked each of his last three at bats, tying the record. He finished the six-game series batting well over .600, on base almost 80% of the time. His heart & spirit seemed even bigger than his bat, however, having swelled at least partly in response to children injured in the Boston Marathon bombing.

After the game, Uehara’s haiku was apparently lost in translation, but his 5-year-old son’s was not: “Good. Strong,” he said to the mike in his face in response to two questions. The manager was eloquent in an elegantly understated way, concise, with respect for the worthy opposition. The general manager was grateful to “have been along for the ride.” Everyone credited everyone else, glad just to have helped.

Papi, his son by his side, went on a bit as MVP, however, unhurried, pure poetry rising between pauses mostly independent of the words, honoring his organization, his teammates, the fans, the city, while doing baseball & humanity both proud in a uniquely humble, open & heroic way. It was a high moment in baseball history, showing why baseball matters, why sport matters.

He had become for awhile, & now for all time, not just the perfect embodiment of a legendary “slugger,” but playing for something bigger than himself, a mythic presence on the base path heading home, thoroughly a team man & part of the whole. A fierce competitor, he nevertheless radiated good will to all, even players & coaches on the other side, setting a wonderful example partly by being so thoroughly just himself.

Then again the team set an even better example as a whole, with its diverse individuals working so well together. It reminded me of two impressions from my boyhood north of Boston. One was of ethnically territorial gangs, in conflict at the borders & in raids elsewhere. The other was baseball, where to a kid near the mid-1950s, ethnicities only enhanced a team by falling away, teams made that much more beautiful by diversities working well together.

With its various positions & diverse set of skills, baseball has a unique capacity to forge unity out of diversity, teamwork out of individual performance, doing so not by making participants the same, but by each player responding at once  individually & all together to each situation. Teamwork includes how players  react to each other’s errors or other failures also, which in most cases will be more than 2/3 of the time at the plate, while even golden glovers will bobble a ball once in a while. Perfection isn’t a realistic expectation, only trying one’s best, with hustle, focus & attention.

The manager’s job is no different, yet goes beyond to include choosing who to delegate what responsibilities to & directing tactical moves as the game develops. At the professional level, many manager styles are possible, though even the differences may vary tremendously in how they expressed in different situations. Nor will the manager always guess right in when to switch pitchers, or any other tactical aspect, being simply another player doing his best.

There are two schools of thought about “winning” & “playing the game” that actually work best as complements, & worst as opposites. The idea that “winning is all” degrades the game, stripping it of both aesthetic & ethical dimensions. The idea that “it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game” ought not ignore the fact that a good part of how one plays the game is “with maximum effort to win,” a complement to playing with excellence.

Excellence wears many faces & takes many forms, including individual performance at the margin of the possible, grace under pressure, the spirit of comradeship within & across teams, love of the game. The game has its own aesthetics as well, including the framework provided by “organized baseball,” with responsibility for caretaking the evolving rules. Where flaws appear, it becomes necessary to tweak (but preferably not to jerk & twerk) the rules.

MLB did that a few years ago after an All-Star game ended in an unprecedented “draw,” when it became clear that the game needed to have some meaning, a consequence to winning or losig, and MLB responded by having the outcome determine which league would have the home team advantage in 4 of the 7-game inter-league world series (2 at home, 3 away, 2 at home until one team makes 4 wins). That was an aesthetically & ethically pleasing addition to the game as a whole, setting the stage for this year’s finish in iconic Fenway, with its green monster & other idiosyncratic quirks.

The series took on all the more meaning from the aftermath of the marathon bombing & subsequent community response. There may be a larger lesson here for policy makers & senior strategists, sometimes distorted by would-be provocateurs. The fact is that short of campaigns of total destruction, many, if not most, otherwise seemingly successful attacks do more to strengthen than to weaken the adversary. They can help create a unity & higher level of working together out of what had been otherwise conflicting elements, for example.

The more powerfully unsymmetrical, bullyish, unjust or cravenly terrorist the attack is perceived to have been, the more resolve to resist tends to be generated, the very opposite of capitulation. The “breaking point” may require not just overwhelming force, but its exercise for longer than all but the most locally committed tend to manage.

The body offers two obvious illustrations of how deeply such principles of resistance may be rooted. One is that toughening that takes place with repeated exercise, e.g., building a karate-punching edge. The other is the immune system reacting in response to a threat, turning the host hostile to that which has attacked it. The attack of a perceived invader can radically change the responsive host, in other words, soon strengthening what first seemed  weakened. The more virulent the attack, the sooner the attacker is either wiped out in the immune system’s counter-attack or loses its host by destroying it, presumably some inherent disadvantage to the organisms.

We are roaming far beyond sports here, into geopolitical & physiological dynamics, but that just emphasizes all the more how connected things are in a total ecology within which networks of all sorts are inherently symbiotic.