Training Musings: Rich Remain Top Dogs
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
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
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.
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
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…
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
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
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).
Enlightenment in a Basketball Hoop?
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
sports and religion are stress-reducers then, they therefore seem to
make perfect sense as reactions to the life ills of African-American
Ultimately, all of this is simply the sort of the thing
that tempts me to view sport in a completely new light.
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