“Is Brooklyn still in the league?” Back when all true Americans were immersed in baseball lore from birth, New York Giant Manager Bill Terry’s slighting remark at a banquet in January of 1934 served as the hallmark of hubris – and just comeuppances. The leader of the 1933 World Champions – which included fellow Hall of Famers Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell and Travis Jackson – had been asked for an assessment of the upcoming season.
Memphis Bill liked his Giants’ chances, but also warned of potent ballclubs in Pittsburgh, Chicago and St. Louis. When a scribe asked him about his neighbors across the bridge, Terry scoffed, “Is Brooklyn still in the league?” Even those of you who don’t know that 1934 was the year of Dizzy and Paul Dean and the Gashouse Gang have probably figured out that Terry’s words came back to haunt him.
The Giants led the National League most of the season, but the Cardinals – with the Dean brothers finishing with 49 wins despite a mid-season holdout – caught them with two games to play. And the Giants played the Dodgers – led by Casey Stengel before he became a genius by managing the Yankees.
Paul (not “Daffy” in any sense) and Dizzy (totally so) beat the Reds back-to-back. The Dodgers, still in the league after all, took the last two games – and the pennant – from the Giants. I like telling old stories, but this one does have a point.
The Dodgers, in sixth place with nothing at stake, played “to win the game,” to steal a famous quote from another sport. In today’s NFL-dominated times, most sports fans know this quote from Herm Edwards, at the time the head coach of the New York Jets, now plying his craft at the University of Arizona.
The full quote, which seems a bit dated these days, is “This is what’s great about sports. This is what the greatest thing about sports is: you play to win the game. Hello? You play to win the game. You don’t play it to just play it. That’s the great thing about sports: you play to win, and I don’t care if you don’t have any wins. You go play to win. When you start tellin’ me it doesn’t matter, then retire. Get out! ‘Cause it matters.” But, suddenly, playing to win doesn’t matter in professional sports, and that’s an ethical problem that strikes at the credibility of everyone involved.
Let’s start with pro basketball, which seems to finish every season with multiple teams “tanking” for the last few months if not the entire season.
The NBA draft lottery is constructed in such a way that the teams which miss the playoffs are allotted chances to secure the first overall draft pick based on how poorly they place. The worse you are, the more chances you get.
My first encounter with tanking came during the 1980s when the Houston Rockets managed to snag Ralph Sampson and hometown hero Hakeem Olajuwon in back-to-back drafts though Sampson’s knee troubles derailed the Twin Towers after they made it to one NBA finals. At that time, the worst record got the first pick, no lottery. So, the lottery was instituted – which actually gave even more teams a reason to play to lose.
Listening to Dallas radio sports guys down the stretch last season, a constant theme was how the Mavericks could lose games without looking like they were trying to lose. In fact, Mavs owner Mark Cuban picked up a $600,000 fine last season for having the audacious honesty to admit that his organization was “tanking.”
And let’s get something clear. “Tanking” is sports-speak for throwing ball games. Saying that the Chicago Black Sox “tanked” the 1919 World Series does not make the results any cleaner than acknowledging that they threw the games in exchange for a payoff that many of them never saw.
Seven conspirators were banned for life along with Buck Weaver, who knew about the plan but neither tanked nor alerted authorities. Or did he and get scape-goated for their indifference?
Talk about your double standards. Individual players throwing ballgames are kicked out of the leagues for their paltry payoffs. Owners and organizations, aiming for even greater monetary dividends, escape – unless they acknowledge what everybody else knows already. With those assessing the Mavs, the jokes centered on how a team can be so competitive for three quarters but not for four. With less than one percentage point of advantage toward getting the No. 1 pick at stake, the chorus was that Rick Carlisle should be fired if Dallas won the last game of the season. It lost.
The NBA model has been “The Process” of the Philadelphia 76ers. Over the past five years, the organization took a mediocre team to the lowest levels, deliberately putting a non-competitive team on the floor in order to get high draft picks. More dedicated talent judgers than I am have said some of those players were “not NBA-caliber.”
Last year, with all of their top picks healthy, the 76ers finished third in the Eastern Conference with the fifth best record in the league – and that’s where they rest starting December. But, the organization was not trying to win those other years. They besmirched the integrity of a game which has other issues pushing it toward professional wrestling status. And, don’t think I’m going to let my favorite sport off the hook. Three of the last four World Series were won by teams that tanked for several years in order to stockpile high recruits.
In 2015, the Royals, one year after breaking .500 for the first time in nine years, won it all with the talent that they had amassed during that funk – and after they upgraded their talent evaluators.
The Cubs broke their 108-year championship drought in 2016 with talent taken during a similar “rebuilding” process. Curse-breaking General Manager Theo Epstein took over a 71-win team in 2012 and led them to 101, 96 and 89 losses before his young stars got their heads above .500 in 2015.
In 2017, the Astros won it all, also in their second year of .500 baseball after posting loss totals of 106, 107 and 111 from 2011 to 2013 and managing a 70-92 record in 2014. I’ve been an Astros fan since they were the Colt .45s, long before the Rangers arrived from D.C. to answer Tom Vandergriff’s dream of major league baseball in Arlington. I enjoyed the Astros’ playoff run and championship. But, I, too, remember that 2014 season, Bo Porter’s last before A.J. Hinch was named to receive the benefits of all that losing.
Just before the season started, the club released J.D. Martinez – apparently over Porter’s objections. He posted a .315 average with 23 homers and 76 RBIs after taking over right field for the Tigers in 2014 and has been an elite player ever since.
For some reason, we consider a 70-92 season to be 22 games under .500. In reality only 11 more wins would reach break-even and nudge a team toward wild card contention. What the Astros lacked in 2014 – besides Martinez’s bat – was middle relief pitching. For about a $10 million investment, truly chicken feed in MLB economics, the ‘Stros could have been competitive one year early.
Sitting in the fourth largest city in country, with fans who had suffered through five straight losing seasons, the Astros kept their money in their pockets, their team out of contention and their draft prospects higher for one more year.
As too many years with the Royals proved – and as the Cleveland Browns demonstrate annually – an organization has to be able to evaluate talent in order to tank its way to the top. But, the question has to remain about the integrity of the individual games when it is in a team’s best interest to lose.
Prima donna mopers aside, most players are trying as hard as they can all of the time – as would we all if given the chance. Organizations choose not to field the best teams possible. Their games lose credibility accordingly.
Since two or three top prospects can turn an NBA franchise in the right direction, the obvious answer for basketball would be to throw the lottery teams into the hopper with only one chance per team. That would eliminate the race to lose more games than your partners in patheticism. You could be subpar and still play to win. It takes more players to turn around a baseball team. Staggering picking order based on years of futility could make total tanking less attractive.
The gist of the proposition would be, say, that, if you were the worst team in baseball two years in a row, the second year you wouldn’t get the top spot in the draft, perhaps the last among non-playoff teams. Other perennially bad teams could be receive similar penalties. Setting the standards would take more math than I care to learn at this point in life. Maybe the Sabremetricians could figure out some numbers.
As with baseball, it takes more than a couple players to fix a bad football team – and some promising quarterbacks have been shell-shocked into obscurity because of their lack of protection. On the gridiron, the more obvious tank jobs come from winning teams as they get ready for the playoffs. Once a team is assured of its playoff berth, especially if its seeding is fixed, the call comes from on high, down low, everywhere, to “rest the starters” for the second season.
Football is a contact sport. The human body does not respond well to contact. It makes sense to protect investments such as starting quarterbacks and other valuable personnel with the playoffs assured. But, that often means predetermining to sacrifice a game “meaningless” to you even if it holds meaning for other teams. And, Scott down at the Shop ‘n’ Bag reminds me that such tactics also perpetuate a fraud upon the paying public.
If you’re rooting for a dismal team and they happen to be finishing the season at home against an elite squad, you don’t get to see the star players. Ditto in the NBA, where teams visit non-conference teams once a year. If a team’s only visit to your town coincides with a coach’s decision to rest most of his starters, you’re paying a full ticket price for a full fraud product. Furthermore, such bait-and-switch swindles often involve top teams, where the home teams have increased the ticket price for that game because of the perceived demand.
Baseball, infamous for its variable “unwritten rules,” used to hold that any team playing a pennant-contending team down the stretch would quit looking at its prospects and field the best available team. No more. Obviously, no team would be expected to waste its ace in the very last days of a season and delay his playoff availability. But, losing for its own sake, means that other teams indulge in this practice as well.
I know they involve different systems. But in England’s Premier League soccer competition, the top four teams get to play for the UEFA championship, the fifth place team places for a Europa League title while the bottom three teams get “relegated” out of the Premier League to be replaced by the top three teams from the Championship League. Yes. Yes. The logistics are different. But, I think most people would agree that deliberate losers should be punished, not rewarded.
In this day and age, with the Dodgers still in the league in Los Angeles, losing those last games might be preferable in order to get better draft picks.
Incredible. Not credible. The fabric and fibers of our games become questionable. Old-timers complain about “everyone getting a trophy” in youth sports as a sign of the decline of winning as the ultimate goal in athletic endeavors. “Winning isn’t everything,” Vince Lombardi observed 50 years ago, “It’s the only thing.”
And now that it’s not? With teams avowedly playing to lose, not even playing just for play, as Edwards complained?
Athleticism at the professional level is breath-taking. NBA hoopsters, especially, are capable of amazing displays. But, if organizations are not playing “to win the game,” the games are aesthetic displays best reviewed by entertainment critics and not sportswriters.
Some folks worry that professional leagues aligning themselves with legalized betting organizations is a dangerous step. It is not the first dangerous step they have taken.
(Gary Edmondson is Stephens County Democratic Party Chair.)