Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Language Lessons

What's in a word?

There are a lot of phrases common to sports analysis...

They choked.

It was a lot closer than the score indicated.

It wasn't as close as the final score.

"X" didn't win the game, "Y" lost it.

They gave the game away.

This is just a small cross section of some of the statements commonly made. But how much is just the idea that people are justifying the way a game was played? Sure, there are cosmetic points scored in garbage time, but some of those "not as close" sort of statements come from someplace else.

Do we make these comments sometimes to demean a team?

People talk about the Patriots losing the Super Bowl this year as one of the biggest choke jobs in the history of professional sports. But by saying the Patriots choked, aren't we then also saying that the Giants got lucky that the Pats didn't bring their A-game? I, for one, watched what I thought was great execution by the Giants of a game-plan that was perfectly designed.

Did the Oilers choke in Buffalo those many years ago, or is that just a way of minimizing the Bills' accomplishments that year?

Language can be a powerful thing, and the statements are direct and have a specific meaning, but what can be implied by a given statement? Sure, teams will win in butt-ugly fashion from time to time, but does that actually make a win any less a win? It still counts in the win column - and as Bill Parcells used to say, "You are what your record is." It doesn't matter if the wins were ugly - it's not how you got there, it's the fact that you got there.

Choke jobs exist in professional sports.

It's a fact.

But at what point does the failure of one party to perform become their own responsibility versus the opponents' rising to the occasion?

In 1986 Calvin Schiraldi blew a lead in game six with the Red Sox up three games to two over the Mets long before Bill Buckner let an errant ground ball go through his legs in a tie ball game. Somehow Buckner became the goat when Schiraldi deserved the blame.

Watching the game, you could see it in his eyes - Schiraldi choked. He didn't have the balls to shut the door with the biggest game of his career on the line.

I don't mean to take anything away from the Mets who fought back with consecutive singles to tie the game up, but I firmly believe that if the Sox had someone on the mound like the Mets' Roger McDowell or Jesse Orosco on the mound, then the team would have won in 1986 and no one would ever have talked about the Buckner gaffe because it would never have happened.

Take the Yankees post-season fiasco of 2004. Yes, it is possibly the biggest choke job in the history of baseball. No team in the post-season had ever been up 3-0 in the ninth and failed to seal the deal. No team has ever let an opponent win four straight after being up 3-0.

Does that take away from what the Red Sox did? No. They came back against a pitcher who was widely believed to be the best closer in baseball en route to their first World Series title since Babe Ruth was on the team. Of course, the flip side of that is that the Red Sox owned Mariano Rivera that season, and for much of the time since.

In the end, the media has a job that it doesn't always do very well - and that's to balance what we write with making sure that credit is still given where it is due.

And sometimes that's as difficult a job when it comes to working language as any other job out there.


soxfaninmiami said...

With regard to Buckner it's all psychology. In order for the Sox to lose Game 6 a series of unlikely events had to occur. As you said it started with Schiraldi whom deserved most of the blame. Remember how awful he was in the Angels series that year? But even before that it started with Clemens leaving the game. Whose decision was it? Clemens or McNamara? I'd say Clemens. After that it goes to Gedman, Stanley, et al. Buckner was merely the last of the series of events that caused the loss. It was his unfortunate destiny to be last. That is the psychology. People remember the last event and not the series of events. If Knight had scored on the pass ball/wild pitch nobody would talk about Bucker. Instead the greatest debate in the history of baseball would have ensued for the past 20something years. Was it a passed ball or a wild pitch? Did Stanley cross Gedman up? The finger pointing would have been fun to watch. I think it was Fox sports who has a show about the 10 reasons why you can't blame Buckner for Game 6. It's worth watching if you ever have the chance.

Suldog said...

There cannot be a "choke" unless the other team is doing their job. Every "choke" involves one team blowing it and another getting the job done.

As for Billy Buck, I've defended him, against the loonies and dolts who have made his name a curseword, ever since that unfortunate night. So many of the morons who blame him have no real recollection of the situation. I'm glad to see that (maybe?) it is finally put to eternal rest.

waltzingmathilda said...

I once heard a comedian joke that there are so many synonyms for winning a game or beating another team that you never really hear a newscaster use the words "x won" or "y lost." This was years ago-ever since, I listen closely to newscasts and he was right-I never hear these words used.

btw-Happy Birthday, dude.

the blue state blogger said...

Bill Parcells said it best, I think:

"In the end, you are what your record says you are."

No matter how "good" you may have looked losing.

Kevin Smith said...

Thanks for the b-day wishes.

It always ate at me a bit that Buckner got the blame for that loss. Ever since 2001 the parallel that I made was that the Sox fans that blamed Buckner on that loss were just like the Raiders fans that blamed the playoff loss on the "tuck rule" call. There were plenty of opportunities afterwards to seal the deal and they just couldn't get it done. It always warms my heart a bit to see some Sox fans that really are as knowledgeable about the game as we like to claim we are.

As for the Parcellsism - it's right on. I always hated those statements about, "that's the best 3-13 team you'll ever see." There's a reason they're 3-13, and not because the team in question is, "the best."