Luck replaces grit in baseball playoffs, just like in real life

October 10, 2014

MLB: NLDS-Washington Nationals at San Francisco Giants

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America,” the scholar Jaques Barzun famously said, “had better learn baseball.” This week, during the first round of Major League Baseball playoffs, it seems more apt than ever. Not because, as Barzun may have thought, baseball captures America’s steadfast values that reward discipline and perseverance, but because the game reflects the nation’s newer values: You succeed by being lucky.

The baseball playoffs are a tribute to the United States as the “Lotto Nation,” where many of us are just waiting to catch a break without having to work for it.

I doubt Barzun had this in mind. As the national pastime, baseball reflected America’s rhythms and traditions: its pastoral origins, its leisurely pace, its emphasis on coming home, its long season and, above all, its message that the spoils go to those who grit it out.

MLB: NLDS-Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis CardinalsBaseball is the sport of the long haul. In any given season for any team, there are ups and downs, catastrophes and triumphs, injuries and recoveries — like life. But those who win manage to keep it together through it all. It’s the one sport where there are no shortcuts to victory. Only the slog.

That is still true during the 162-game season. But then come the playoffs — first the one-game wild-card elimination (one game!) and then the division series in which teams play a best-of-five competition. Whatever a team earned in the season’s long slog is quickly dispelled in these all-too-short matchups. We all realize the new wild-card one-off is a sop to fans. Yet we don’t notice the basic unfairness of the brief American League Division Series and National League Division Series since they are now part of the routine. But just think about it.

The Los Angeles Angels, the best team in the American League this year — meaning it won the most games — was dispatched in three games by the wild-card Kansas City Royals, who had won nine fewer games. The best team in the National League, the Washington Nationals, was vanquished by the wild-card San Francisco Giants, which won eight fewer games. So much for the long haul.

Fans in Kansas City and San Francisco are delighted. Their teams are described as scrappy and hard-nosed underdogs. What those fans won’t admit, however, is that their teams are also lucky — very lucky.

MLB: ALDS-Los Angeles Angels at Kansas City RoyalsThey are lucky even to be in the playoffs because they didn’t win anything. They came in second in their division, fourth in the league overall. (We’re No. 4! We’re No. 4!) They got in only because Major League Baseball is desperate to keep fans involved — even when their teams should have been eliminated from championship contention.

Meanwhile, the fans don’t care that their teams have not really earned the right to be rewarded with a crack at the championship. What matters is their teams now have a chance to win the World Series (That is very American, too.)

It is the baseball equivalent of giving every 10-year-old soccer player a sterling-silver trophy.

You can say the same about every other professional sport. The values of perseverance and excellence, of earning the right to play for a championship by playing well over a season, aren’t honored anywhere, anymore.

But in other sports, there are mitigations. Football has a short season where the difference between a division winner and a wild-card contender can be minimal. Basketball has a tradition of tournaments, and everybody knows an eighth seed in the National Basketball Association won’t win a championship, anyway. In hockey, the Stanley Cup throws out the regular season and turns into a last-man-standing battle in which the team still breathing at the end wins.

There are no such mitigations in baseball, the very essence of America. What there is are teams like the Royals and Giants getting lucky — which, in a best-of-five series isn’t all that unusual and in the best-of-one wild-card game is essentially a throw of the dice. A ball takes a bad hop, a pitching ace has one bad outing, an umpire expands the strike zone. And just like that, luck turns into victory — and an inferior team beats a superior one that has proven to be better over that long season.

MLB: NLDS-San Francisco Giants at Washington NationalsThat is what makes these playoffs so American. We think of ourselves as a 162-game nation — long haulers. We are told incessantly that anyone can succeed if he or she is willing to work hard and show stick-to-it-tiveness. We give lip service to the idea that pluck beats luck.

But the truth is that, like the Royals and Giants, we would just as soon be the beneficiaries of good fortune than of hard work — and suspect the former is just as likely, if not likelier, to result in success since the country really doesn’t reward all that effort, anyway. You just have to look at how little wages have risen even as productivity has soared. You have a better chance of winning Powerball than getting a bonanza with hard work. In short, it doesn’t pay to be the Angels or Nationals.

Maybe that is why those wild cards are so appealing that fans are willing to subvert traditional baseball values – and traditional American values — for them. They offer hope that even if the odds are stacked against us, we can still get lucky — and still succeed. Elbow grease be damned.

That is the heart and mind of today’s post-recession Lotto America. You can’t blame ‘em.

 

PHOTO (TOP): San Francisco Giants right fielder Hunter Pence hits a single against the Washington Nationals in the first inning during game four of the 2014 NLDS baseball playoff game at AT&T Park, Oct. 7, 2014. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

PHOTO (INSERT 1): St. Louis Cardinals players celebrate on the field after defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in game four of the 2014 NLDS baseball playoff game at Busch Stadium, Oct. 7, 2014.  Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Kansas City Royals fans hold up a sign against the Los Angeles Angels during game three of the 2014 ALDS baseball playoff game at Kauffman Stadium, Oct. 5, 2014. Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
 
PHOTO (INSERT 3): San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Hudson (17) walks to the dugout after being taken out of the game in the eighth inning against the Washington Nationals in game two of the 2014 NLDS playoff baseball game at Nationals Park, Oct. 4, 2014. Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
15 comments

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The Dodgers and the Angels should have bared-down, shown their grit and won some playoff games. They both, as true baseball fans know, “choked”.

Posted by Factoidz | Report as abusive

This article stinks of sour grapes. The thing is, all the teams know the rules of the playoffs before the season starts. Smart management develops a team for BOTH the regular season and the playoffs. Calling this “luck” is ridiculous. Is it truly luck that keeps the Cardinals and Giants winning playoff games every year? Or is it the grit and determination of teams that really want it? Or just smart organizations developing well-rounded teams for playoff series?

The Dodgers didn’t have “bad luck” when Kershaw hung a curve for Adams. It wasn’t “luck” when their man on third got picked off lolly-gagging. They didn’t play as well as the Cardinals, and lost. Same goes for the other playoff teams. These series didn’t even go to 5 games. All the teams earned their spots through excellent play, not “luck”!

Posted by AstroMage | Report as abusive

So true, so true, money trumps ability and hard work making sports records meaningless.

Posted by mkmdd314 | Report as abusive

Clearly written by someone with a superficial knowledge of baseball and sports in general.

Posted by RedRusty | Report as abusive

This article stinks of sour grapes. The thing is, all the teams know the rules of the playoffs before the season starts. Smart management develops a team for BOTH the regular season and the playoffs. Calling this “luck” is ridiculous. Is it truly luck that keeps the Cardinals and Giants winning playoff games every year? Or is it the grit and determination of teams that really want it? Or just smart organizations developing well-rounded teams for playoff series?

The Dodgers didn’t have “bad luck” when Kershaw hung a curve for Adams. It wasn’t “luck” when their man on third got picked off lolly-gagging. They didn’t play as well as the Cardinals, and lost. Same goes for the other playoff teams. These series didn’t even go to 5 games. All the teams earned their spots through excellent play, not “luck”!

Posted by AstroMage | Report as abusive

So, your assertion is that both the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals got lucky four nights in a row? Yeah – okay, buddy. In all probability, the outcome would be no different in a best-of-seven series.

Whining about the wild card game isn’t going to change the fact that the Angels lost in three!

Posted by apadovani | Report as abusive

The whole quote is “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game – and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams.” This was published in 1973.

So, that leaves this basic premise of the article moot.

Still I agree there is allot of luck in baseball. Even the statisticians have calculated “luck” in seasonal ratings such as http://www.baseball-reference.com/league s/MLB/2014-standings.shtml

If you read Tony La Russa’s “One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season” you can get a sense of the season long struggle to get team into the playoffs in peak condition. I think this is different but actually even more dramatic struggle then the pre-1969 seasons. Look at those standings and you find many seasons were over early and each game was not played using ever trick like today (more and earlier substitutions/specialization everywhere).
Sure there is a lucky ingredient but there always was and now overall the winners will come from depth of organization, discipline of players in every game, minimize mistakes and training to minimize injures, and delicate juggle of roster in “era of free agency”.

You give luck to much credit.

Posted by sirgorpster | Report as abusive

The quote originally was from 1954.

Posted by sirgorpster | Report as abusive

While luck is a larger factor in baseball than in other sports, this article gets nearly every part of the metaphor wrong. First of all, every team plays 162 games, and there is no impetus to lose in baseball, so it is wrong to say the Dodgers/Angels put in more effort. The factors that determine how successful a team is over a 162-game season are the team’s skill level and health (the latter of which is largely uncontrollable).
If anything, the Tigers, Dodgers, and Angels represent privilege in that they purchased the vast majority of their star talent. They do not have to scout and develop players as well as other teams because they acquire star players from other teams. The star players on these teams do not have to put in as much effort because they have superior skill.
The reason why stories like the Giants and Royals are so captivating is that in them we see organizations and players that had to toil for years in less ideal circumstances, taking unorthodox approaches or clawing their way through the minor leagues. It is refreshing to see them rewarded because it is an ephemeral, fragile memory of the American Dream.

Posted by Benoubo | Report as abusive

While luck is a larger factor in baseball than in other sports, this article gets nearly every part of the metaphor wrong. First of all, every team plays 162 games, and there is no impetus to lose in baseball, so it is wrong to say the Dodgers/Angels put in more effort. The factors that determine how successful a team is over a 162-game season are the team’s skill level and health (the latter of which is largely uncontrollable).
If anything, the Tigers, Dodgers, and Angels represent privilege in that they purchased the vast majority of their star talent. They do not have to scout and develop players as well as other teams because they acquire star players from other teams. The star players on these teams do not have to put in as much effort because they have superior skill.
The reason why stories like the Giants and Royals are so captivating is that in them we see organizations and players that had to toil for years in less ideal circumstances, taking unorthodox approaches or clawing their way through the minor leagues. It is refreshing to see them rewarded because it is an ephemeral, fragile memory of the American Dream.

Posted by Benoubo | Report as abusive

When the Wild Card was one team in each league, even finishing way off the pace in your division still gave you a shot, and the only challenge was facing the top-seeded team in the 5-game playoff, it WAS an “everyone gets a prize” kind of thing. Now, with finishing a close-second (AL Central both of the last two years; NL Central last year; …) only getting you the chance to play a win-or-go-home one-game playoff (I nicknamed it the “Thunderdome deathmatch” about a year ago), after maybe burning your #1 starter in the final game of the regular season (cf. Pittsburgh this year, and pretty much all four of them in 2013?), you then get to use your next-best in the showdown game, thus guaranteeing you’re at least one step, if not two, behind the opposition in the Division series, that being of course that top-seeded team in your league, with 3 of 5 games being played on the road.

If a team is able to overcome all of that, and still be in the running for the 7-game LCS series, I’d say they deserve to be there.

Posted by codger714 | Report as abusive

How is it that every commenter to this article managed to miss the author’s point?

What the man was effectively saying is that every team in the MLB had 162 games to prove they were better than their divisional opponents, and the wild card teams all failed to do that. Stop trying to read more into the article than what was stated.

The “winners” of the 2014 season were clearly the Orioles, Tigers, Angels, Nationals, Cardinals, and Dodgers. All the author was implying was that neither the Giants nor the Royals would be playing in October prior to the wild card years. Because if you didn’t win the division or (prior to 1969) the League title, you went home and polished off your golf clubs. So I totally agree with his statement that the “Royals and Giants didn’t ‘win’ anything”. As he stated, wild card teams are in the playoffs for no other reason than to keep fans interested and extend the playoffs. And the big winner when both of those things occur is the MLB pocketbook.

Posted by kin9pin5 | Report as abusive

Hey Neal…. you have forgotten… Luck is the intersection of opportunity and preparedness…. Without prepared – you got nothing..

Posted by michaelryan | Report as abusive

Reading this it sounds more like we’ve become a nation of whiners, who want to rest on past accomplishments & have things handed to us that we think we somehow “deserve”…and in the process disrespecting an opponent who worked every bit as hard during the 162-game season and faced bad luck as well as good. Luck happens to all teams from time to time; there is no shame in capitalizing on it. Entitlement, however, has no place in sports.

Posted by zeldaA | Report as abusive

History shows that the team with the best record rarely wins it all. Wins and losses only points to whether a team is good or not good. San Francisco had the best record in all of baseball after the first two months of the season. They were consistently on the top of the power rankings and then they imploded after a few injuries only to resurrect themselves in September. The Giants are where they are because they are a damn good ball club and so are the Royals. The Giants are in a division that faces the best pitcher in all of baseball and they still managed to beat out the Brewers for the Wild Card. They did that because they are an amazing team with an amazing manager. All of the talk about luck is insulting to be honest.

Posted by AdiosPelota | Report as abusive