Outside Oberlin

Spring Training Musings: Rich Remain Top Dogs

Over the last few days I’ve had to face the fact that the football season is over. Usually the season is over by early January and I crawl into a sports hole for a while to absorb yet another disappointing year. Not this year, though. Not only did one of my teams actually win the championship, the Pats’ Super Bowl run had the added benefit of extending the season into February. And you know what comes in February, right? Yep, it’s spring training!
Hooray! No long layover.
I go through cycles with my favorite sport. When the heat is on during the football season, I’d probably tell you that it’s my favorite. But then there’s nothing quite like the thrill of a pennant chase, and when baseball’s in full swing, there’s no better sport. And when the NHL gets to playoff time... well, playoff hockey is just freaking cool.
So before too long I’ll be totally absorbed by the baseball season. Which brings me to one of the best pairs of words in the English language: pitchers and catchers. They officially started reporting on Thursday. Red Sox pitchers and catchers actually began reporting earlier than that for Joe Kerrigan’s pre-preseason and — wonder of wonders — even Pedro showed up! Oh, it’s going to be a good season. But enough of my New England bias (for now).
Spring training’s always been a special time for me. It signals a new beginning, a fresh year filled with hope and promise…and all that cliché stuff. It signals another chance to end that blasted 80-plus year curse — whoops! There I go again.
Actually, there’s a big problem with spring training’s connotations of new beginnings: it’s not actually in the spring! It’s always made me kind of jealous, seeing all the footage of pros in bright sunshine and 70-degree weather, while I’ve always been at home in the frigid cold, staring at piles of snow.
Seriously, though, there’s an even bigger problem than that. You can throw out all the clichés you want, but the truth is that many of the major league teams don’t start spring training with lots of hope and promise. Any readers from Montreal, Pittsburgh or maybe Kansas City? You know what I mean. I’m fortunate that my favorite team is from a major market and, when under good management, can afford to compete (and come up short) year after year. But most small-market teams can only hope to make the middle of the pack. The owners’ thwarted plans for contraction may have been an ill-advised scheme, but it wasn’t hatched without a reason.
Fortunately, it seems that every year we get a surprise from one small market team. In 1999 it was the Cincinnati Reds who made a great run before losing to the Mets in one-game playoff to determine the wild card. In 2000 we saw a great young A’s team take off to win the AL West. And last year it was the forgotten Twins who gave us our small-market thrills, holding the AL Central for most of the season before giving way at the end. (And they wanted to eliminate those Twins!) The Reds, though, finished second in the NL Central and well out of the wild card race the following year, before dropping to fifth last year. The A’s, meanwhile, have been unable to finish off the Yankees in the first playoff round in consecutive years, and who knows what fate awaits last year’s surprising Twins in 2002?
These three teams have shown that a team with a smaller payroll can compete in the big leagues and can be a playoff contender with the right management. What they haven’t shown is that a small-market team can win it all. We saw the Patriots win the Super Bowl this year with the second-lowest payroll in the NFL and incredible coaching. But the difference between the Rams’ payroll and the Patriots was only (and I’m using “only” loosely here) around $20 million. The disparity between the payrolls of the Yankees and Red Sox (the two teams who ran neck and neck for the Biggest Spender title) and the Twins (lowest payroll in the league) was greater than $80 million.
Clearly, MLB needs to do something about this. Contraction will never go through and wouldn’t solve the problem anyway. The NFL really could be a good model. There’s a salary cap, the draft is based entirely on team’s finishes (I don’t even pretend to know how the hell baseball’s various drafts work), and even the schedule makes allowances for competitive balance. The result is that any team, if properly managed, can win in the NFL, and the Patriots proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. In baseball, on the other hand, the rich just get richer, which brings me to…
Some teams to keep an eye on: Okay, I’m going to wait until well into spring training before I make my regular season predictions (which will inevitably be wrong because… well, aren’t they always?), but I do think there are some things worth taking a look at now, starting with:
The Yankees. Remember I just said the rich get richer? Well, the Yankees are the rich. In a year when nearly every other team cut payroll, the Yanks are going to push theirs to what? Is it the $150 million mark yet? I think it’s pretty close. Even the free-spending Dodgers and Red Sox are cutting back this year (don’t worry New Englanders, the Sox probably won’t spend more than $100 million this year, but it’ll be damn close). The Yanks have added Jason Giambi, because, well, Steinbrenner wanted Giambi. With him on board everyone will be predicting the Yankees to win the World Series. I’m shocked, are you?
The A’s. The losers in the Giambi affair. Apparently, fame and fortune meant more to him than his mother-team, despite all he said. The A’s have had a great run the last few years, but just haven’t been able to clear that Yankee hurdle. With Giambi now playing against them, that hurdle looks even bigger. The A’s still have arguably the three best young pitchers in the game in Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, but I think their window of opportunity is closing fast, and it’ll be interesting to see if they can squeeze another good run or two out of it.
The Diamondbacks. After beating the Yankees this year in the Series, the pressure’s on them. And to think, if contraction had gone through, the D’Backs would’ve been moved to the AL and we’d have had both World Series teams in one league. Scary thought. Was Arizona a one-hit wonder? I expect they’ll compete again this year, and with both Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, you’ll never be able to count them out.
And finally, the Twins. Will they fade like Cincy, or will they put together some more strong years like Oakland? It’s all going to be about pitching, I think, since they haven’t added anybody to their offense, which wasn’t one of the league’s best. The young offensive players will have to pick it up some, the young pitching will have to keep clicking, and Rick Reed, whom they got in a trade from the Mets last year, will have to prove that he was worth it. (His ERA with Twins in 2001 was over 5.00.) It’ll be tough, but I think they’ll be fun to watch. I know I’ll be pulling for them (until they face the Red Sox).
Play ball!

Is There Enlightenment in a Basketball Hoop?

“What are sports really?”
Perhaps it is an easy question, perhaps not, but I ask it for several reasons. Most generally, it seems to me that sport is quite a common phenomenon throughout human societies, as widespread across the globe as religion. Its ubiquity, as well as its connection with spiritual practices, strikes me as being more than mere coincidence, but to explain this I will need to fill you in on some details.
Scientific study, for example, into the human brain is amassing a premium of evidence for the proposition that somehow human brains are “wired for spirituality” in the same way that we are wired for mathematical reasoning and emotional response.
Some experts, such as those Andrew Newberg describes in his book Why God Won’t Go Away, have used special techniques to peer into neural processes and have observed marked similarities in the brain-states of Buddhist monks in meditation with Catholic nuns in prayer, noting the particular activity in certain regions of their brains.
These disparities in brain-states from those observed when people are not in deep meditation or prayer are thought to shed some light on the testimonies of people who, during deep meditation, claim to experience a sensation of floating or losing their identities by merging with something greater than themselves. Scientists relate these accounts to the changes observed in the parts of the brain that are thought to control spatial orientation and the sense of selfhood.
It seems to me that if it is true that somehow we are hard-wired for God in this way, it is not a big jump from here to see that we could somehow be hard-wired for sport. In fact, this latter notion seems very much more intuitive than the previous one, perhaps especially because I subscribe to a belief in biological evolution.
We humans all have bodies. These bodies reached their present form over millions of years of minute adaptations, during most of which we were spending a lot of time chasing food and running away from predators. In other words, our bodies, in evolutionary terms, are accustomed to a lot more exercise than has been afforded us by the settled life of the last few thousand years, which most of us humans who are not still hunter-gatherers are now living.
It seems more than reasonable to me to explain sport in this way as the natural outgrowth and fulfillment of this need for physical exercise, as well as the need for social bonding that any human group needs and that team sports require.
I think it is therefore reasonable to say that, just as our minds may be built for spiritual experiences, our bodies seem to obviously be built for the physical exertion that sports involve.
Yet, as you might have guessed, the connections to spirituality do not stop there. In fact, it is apparently quite common for very devoted athletes to experience the same sorts of strange, almost otherworldly things which people claim to experience during deep prayer or meditation.
Michael Murphy, a writer on the subject of spirituality and sports, has documented many accounts by athletes who testify to these experiences in books such as In the Zone. He relates the testimonies of sprinters who testify to the sensation of floating while running, much in the same vein as deep meditators do. Fascinated by this idea, I made a point of asking around to see if this might really be true.
I asked first-year track-runner Teresa Collins whether she had ever felt like she was floating during a sprint, and, to my surprise and delight, she told me that she had, saying that it involved an ecstatic feeling of effortlessness and detachment from surrounding events.
Even more intrigued now that it seemed to be a real phenomenon, I asked sophomore basketball-player Chris Ikpoh if he could relate to sensation of floating during his games, and he said that he could not, but that what I was describing sounded very similar to what he always called “being in the zone” during times on the court, when, as he said, “Every move you make seems slowed down. Everything you want to do is so clear. When you take the shot, the rim is so big. No matter what everyone else is doing, you don’t hear them.”
After hearing all of this, it made me extremely curious about what sort of relationship sport has to the human experience of spirituality. I wondered, “Are athletes experiencing their respective sports as a link between them and their creators?”
Whether or not God actually exists, if our minds are wired to experience God, then somehow this spiritual function of the brain will find a way to rear up its head. I was always comfortable with the notion that its head reared through religious practice, but now it seemed to make sense that this metaphorical head was also coming through in the practice of sport.
Yet the connections do not even stop there. Religious practice has been documented in many scientific studies to be highly correlated with lower levels of stress in people. Religion is, in other words, a stress-reducer.
Many doctors also claim that vigorous physical exercise helps to break down stress-causing chemicals in the body, such as adrenaline. So sports can be a stress-reducer. A no-brainer, you say. Everyone knows that if you’re feeling angry or stressed, you go for a run to burn it off. Of course this is so.
Yet this sheds light for me on a seemingly completely disparate topic: why sports and religion are so important among African-American communities. According to a 2001 survey by George Gallup, some 65 percent of Americans believe that religion can be the answer to today’s ills, yet comparatively some 85 percent of African-Americans subscribe to this viewpoint. I had always vaguely wondered about it, being an African-American myself and completely missing the connection, as I do not agree with this particular belief.
Given the economic and social conditions that many African-Americans live with, however, generally battling more impoverished conditions, more racial prejudice, and so forth, stress seems to be an understandable physical reaction for many Americans of African descent.
If sports and religion are stress-reducers then, they therefore seem to make perfect sense as reactions to the life ills of African-American people.
Ultimately, all of this is simply the sort of the thing that tempts me to view sport in a completely new light.
The question of “What are sports really?” seems suddenly to be quite a complex one. Are they avenues to enlightenment? Are they potentially just as valid forms of spiritual practice as prayer or meditation? Are they somehow just as important and innate to humanity as even our notions of God?
These seem like big questions to me, but maybe just a few years ahead of their time, as I do not expect to see the Pope advocating sit-ups over “The Lord’s Prayer” any time soon.

February 15
February 22

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