Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Truth and sports don't mix
By Patrick Hruby and Mike Philbrick
What do you need to be successful in the sports world?
A body in top condition? A great time in the 40? A terrific performance at a private workout before the draft? Um, athletic ability?
All these are great -- really, they are. If you have any of them, you're luckier than most of us, but what you really need is the ability to lie.
That's right, from the owners to the GMs to the coaches to the players -- the ones that stay on top the longest and sail the calmest waters are the ones that can lie the best.
Check out this quick example:
Any reporter in the world: "Hey Joe Torre, how come (insert name of a player making $25 million a year) made three errors on Monday and struck out with the bases loaded
Torre: "Well, I think he's pressing."
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, pressing means that a player loves the game so much, loves his team so much and especially loves the fans so much that he just tries too gosh darn hard and, oops, better luck next time.
We would love to hear Joe Torre, or any other manager, say:
"Well, for that kind of money you'd think we could count on him at least in the field. Thank God we were playing the Mariners or we would have been screwed. Hey, I'm surprised he played as well as he did with his head up his ass."
but it ain't gonna happen. Because constantly talking in scenarios or versions of the truth are what keeps the sports world and its fragile egos going.
Not convinced? Here are a few more lies, omissions and fuzzy interpretations of reality that make sports so great.
Bill Clinton never had "sexual relations" with that woman. And honest to goodness, he was telling the truth -- provided you swallowed (no pun intended) the former president's extremely circumscribed definition of "sexual relations." In sports, similar semantic hairsplitting is often employed to stretch, distort or dodge the truth altogether.
Sometimes the matter is mundane: shortly after basketball coach Kelvin Sampson reportedly told his players he was leaving Oklahoma for Indiana, a Hoosiers spokesman insisted the school had "no information" about hiring Sampson. One day later, the school held a press conference welcoming the coach aboard. Hello, information!
Or take Sammy Sosa's steroid non-denial before Congress:
"To be clear, I have never taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs. I have never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything. I've not broken the laws of the Unites States or the laws of the Dominican Republic. I have been tested as recently as 2004 and I am clean."
As veteran baseball scribe Tom Boswell of the Washington Post pointed out in a next-day column, Sosa's statement doesn't cover taking steroids orally as prescribed legally by a Dominican doctor. Does that make Sosa a cheat? Not necessarily. But it does give the slugger a modicum of plausible deniability, the last refuge of a scoundrel and the guiding principle of our current legal system. In fact, forget the law degree explosion and the fleeting popularity of "Ally McBeal." Semantic fibbing in sports is the surest sign yet of just how lawyered-up our culture has become.
Everything ends badly. Otherwise it wouldn't end. Coughlin taught us that in "Cocktail," and of his myriad cockamamie assertions -- "There is no such thing as a chemical imbalance!" -- this one actually rings true.
Of course, you wouldn't know it from following sports.
A few years back, Tom Penders abruptly resigned as coach of the George Washington men's basketball team following a three-year tenure that produced the school's first losing record in 11 years, a series of on-court brawls, a telephone calling-card scandal involving four players and another player being slapped with nine misdemeanor sex, weapon and theft charges. All in all, not exactly a glowing record. But no matter. Penders' farewell press conference was nothing short of a love-in, with the coach insisting the decision to step down was all his, the result of burnout and a desire to see more of his family.
Meanwhile, university president Stephen Trachtenberg noted that "everybody's going away friends." Athletic director Jack Kvancz teared up.
"There's a man who exudes class and can coach the game of basketball," Kvancz said of Penders. "On behalf of the university, with warmest regards, we wish you the best in whatever you do."
Why the Panglossian whitewash, the geyser of gushing insincerity better suited to a presidential campaign concession speech? Simple. In athletics as in politics, the awful truth is seldom preferable to a graceful -- if utterly bogus -- goodbye.
Outside of the ugliest breakups -- think T.O. and Donovan McNabb -- strained superlatives and facetious fare-thee-wells are par for the sports divorce course.
It's time to move on. I want to pursue outside opportunities. Nobody's pushing me out.
Coaches generally insist they're departing of their own accord, even when most exits are less hari-kari than "Et Tu, Brutus?" Athletes maintain they have no hard feelings toward the franchises that callously cut them to save a couple hundred grand against the salary cap. It's a business, after all. And franchises? Franchises are always moving in another direction -- which is to say, away from the putrid record and/or felony charges attached to the player or coach they're dumping.
Speaking of dumps: you could top off Staten Island's famed Fresh Kills landfill with the buyouts and severance packages that litter the sports world, like $3 million for former Cincinnati basketball coach Bob Huggins or $7 million for former Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum. Hmmm, 10 million bucks. No wonder sports divorcés are so eager to play kissy-face. Everything may end badly, but few things end badly in such absurdly lucrative fashion.
See No Evil Lies
These are lies where if the reporter didn't see it and, hopefully, there's no videotape
well, then you're just going to have to rely on the interpretation of those who did.
Take baseball. In the history of the game has there ever been a bullpen side session that was anything short of "electric," "outstanding," or "impressive"?
After signing Sidney Ponson from the Cardinals' trash heap (who signed Ponson from the Orioles' trash heap) Yankees pitching coach Ron Guidry got to witness the Pride of Aruba's stuff.
Mind you, Ponson was designated for assignment on July 7 after putting up a 4-4 record in 14 games with the Cards. (Oh, he threw in a 5.24 ERA and let runners hit over .300 against him for free.) So, how do you think he did?
Once again, let's ask Mr. Torre:
"[Guidry] said he was really good. He said he was sharp, he threw all his pitches. He was impressed with the quality of his stuff and the variety of his stuff."
During Texas' run to last year's college football championship, all-universe quarterback Vince Young proclaimed that the Longhorns were "always the underdogs or something." This, of course, was a preposterous assertion: Excluding their national title game matchup against then-No. 1 USC, Texas was favored in just about every game it played. So was Young telling a whopper? Not really. Certainly not intentionally. No, the Texas signal caller was simply pitching an unthinking sports cliché: the sort of sound-good, say-nothing stock phrase or trope that can become a falsehood when uttered in the wrong circumstances.
Go to a losing locker room. You'll hear the same stuff ad nausea: We came out flat. They made the plays and we didn't. It is what it is. Are those the exact, specific, detailed reasons the team lost?
Nope. The truth of the matter is that someone made a mistake, someone let nerves get the best of them, someone got their butt kicked by the guy on the opposing squad. But stating the truth of the matter can also lead to controversy. Clichés offer an easy sound bite and an easier way out, so much so that they're hardly noticed unless badly misapplied.
Forgive Young, sports fans, for he knows not -- nor even thinks about -- what he says.
If athletics have taught us anything -- beyond an intuitive grasp of supply-and-demand that comes when plunking down $8 for a ballpark beer -- it's that numbers can be used to prove (and disprove) just about anything.
As such, it's wise to take statistic-rich arguments with a grain of salt. Or a Barbaro-sized sodium lick.
In the recent book "The Wages of Wins," a trio of economists claim that Allen Iverson was only the 91st-best player in the league in 2000-01, the same season the diminutive Philadelphia guard led the Sixers to the NBA Finals and was named league MVP.
Now, is Iverson a horribly inefficient scorer by nearly every statistical standard? Yes. He's a chucker, a gunner, the kind of player you hate to have on your pickup team, even when you win. That said, would Philly have advanced to the Finals had Iverson been replaced by one of the 90 players ranked ahead of him? Unless you're talking Shaquille O'Neal, probably not.
In sports, stats don't necessarily lie. But they don't always tell the whole truth.
Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Mike Philbrick is an editor for Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.