Sometimes Winning Shouldn’t Matter

1458484_761865020493173_1695783678_nI am not a die-hard Carolina Panthers fan by any stretch of the imagination. This will not be an in-depth analysis of why the Panthers should have kept Steve Smith, or of how he would actually benefit the team. Honestly, my sports knowledge resides pretty much entirely within the realm of baseball. However, when I heard of the Panthers legend being cut from his beloved team, despite having one more year left on his contract, for statistical and performance reasons I felt I should weigh in, because the mentality and philosophy behind a cut such as this is one that has profound and dangerous implications far beyond the playing field.

What I have gathered from news reports, and the passionate reactions of fans, is that Wide Receiver Steve Smith was a loyal and foundational player in the Panthers organization. He was a player who played well, played tough, and played hard. He was cut as part of a thorough retooling being done by the General Manager, David Gettleman, honing in on statistical results, getting the best performance for the least money, and putting the bottom line first. “Decisions,” Gettleman said in a statement about the releasing of Smith, “either popular or unpopular, have to be made for the greater good, and it is imperative to take an unemotional global view”. Ultimately it did not matter what Smith had done for the Panthers. All that mattered was what he could produce tangibly for the team in the here and now. If he was not producing in a measurable, statistical manner, he would be deemed unnecessary and unessential.

Now, I do not want to engage in any debates about the practical wisdom behind this move. Rather, I want to discuss the philosophy behind the move: results come first. As Gettleman said, “it is imperative to take an unemotional global view”. I have seen several sports commentators argue that time will tell whether Gettleman made the right choice, that the win/loss record of the team next season will either validate his decision or prove it foolish. I would like to argue, however, that even if the Panthers go on to win the Super Bowl unhindered by Smith’s declining abilities, Gettleman made the wrong choice, for the philosophy used to arrive at the decision is a dangerous and questionable one.

Panthers fans are outraged at the moment, and rightly so. But why? It can be statistically proven, evidently, that Smith was a liability to the team, not producing as he once did. Should they not instead by excited by the fact that ownership has placed such a high premium on winning that they are willing to cut even the most revered name in franchise history? No, of course not! Why not? Because Panthers fans understand that there is something fundamentally wrong with cutting a loyal and revered player simply because he is not physically capable of performing at the same caliber, and produce the same results, as he once did.

What Panthers fans are mad at is a destructive philosophy, a subtly dangerous mentality that has taken quite the hold on American culture: consequentialism. A consequentialist holds that the consequences of an action either justifies or condemns the action. Thus, Smith was cut (the action) because if cut the team will win more (the consequence). Because the goal of victory has been placed above all else, Gettleman sees no reason to honor the loyalty and history of Steve Smith’s past efforts for the Panthers by allowing him to finish the last year on his contract since it means victory. This is the same philosophy that drives much of American business: the point is to make as much money as possible. If employees can be cut to maximize profit, then they should be cut, regardless of previous company loyalty, work ethic, or personal situation.

What is dangerous about this philosophy is that people become numbers and profit-makers rather than fully realized human beings, where their needs, loves, wants and desires are acknowledged and respected. Ultimately, human beings are considered means to ends, instead of ends in themselves. This opens the door for all sorts of unethical and heartless practices. When the results, the win, and the bottom dollar reign supreme, man can be abused, used, and manipulated. What is the worth of a man? Gettleman points to his statistics, the businessman points to his productivity.

I, however, would point to the man himself. Or rather, what dwells inside the man, and that is the image of his Creator. Humans are intrinsically and inherently valuable, regardless of their statistics, regardless of their productivity, regardless of their abilities, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs, social class or anything else. The day that we place material goals above the welfare of people is the day we lose our humanity. For on that day, we will have become little better than brutes, thinking only of ourselves, thinking only of what we stand to gain, and shunning the fact that in order to save our lives we must first lose them.

So, my fellow Carolinians, go on and complain about Smith being cut. You are certainly justified. But think about why you are upset, why it just seems “plain wrong” for a loyal player to be cut simply for statistical reasons. Sometimes doing something the right way is more important than victory. Sometimes losing is preferable to winning, and treating people as people is always superior to maximizing profit.  Let this situation remind you of the fact that how we accomplish our goals is just as important as the goals themselves. Let us examine ourselves, always watchful and wary of the selfish tendency to view our fellow humans as means to our own ends, rather than as the ends they were created to be.


The End of an Era

Will we ever again see players such as these?

It is remarkably fitting and wonderfully symbolic that I write this brief tribute to the careers of Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte in the midst of my second year of college. As a life-long Yankees fan, these two men were heroes of my childhood, two leaders who led the team through the monumentally successful dynasty years from 1996 to 2003 and helped lay the foundations for the new era of Yankees post-Steinbrenner. These two were leaders of the team that shaped my childhood ideas of what it meant to be a competitor, a fighter, a winner, a Yankee. Now, while I sit here in my college dorm, straddling the line between youth and adulthood, I see these titans of my youngest memories ride off into the sunset. It is the end of an era for New York, for baseball, and for me.

Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte. These were not simply ballplayers to me. They were my heroes, my role models, my examples, my friends. I channeled the fiery passion of Pettitte as he stared in to Posada looking for a sign, daring the batter with that infamous, darkened gaze. His intensity, his commitment to battling when it mattered most, particularly in the postseason, inspired me to do the same. And whenever Pettitte came through for the team with a gutsy performance, there was Rivera, reliable as ever, coming in to nail down the victory. Never fazed, never panicked, never expressing any emotion except satisfaction at a job well done, Rivera did his job professionally and respectfully. One out, two outs, three outs, and that was that. One pitch, one result. Finish the game and shake the catcher’s hand.

These pitchers were not simply baseball players to me. They taught me that the team came above personal pride. Pettitte, ever the reliable number two starter for the Yankees, never the ace, reminded me that there were things more important than being the best. Even in his darkest time, his PED admission, he humbled himself, owning up to his mistake, repenting of it, expressing remorse for it even as he announced his retirement this year, never attempting to fluff over it or sweep it under the rug. Rivera, for his part, showed complete respect to every teammate, opponent, umpire and human being I ever saw him come into contact with. What spoke loudest about Rivera, louder than his many triumphs, was how he handled his defeats (subtly admonishing my own undeveloped ability to lose, which my family will testify was not as developed as Rivera’s after his blown save in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series). In an age when athletes are prone to express their anger vulgarly and obscenely, being immune to the standards ordinary folks are held to, the great Mariano treated everyone as he would want to be treated. Never did Rivera scream obscenities or hurl clubhouse gear after a blown save. He had been beaten fairly. He walked off the field, and let the opponents enjoy their victory.

I will not waste any more of your time detailing these two legendary player’s many accolades and achievements, for these, though significant, are not important. These two men deserve your respect not for what they achieved on the field, but for how they conducted themselves both on and off that field. In a walk of life fundamentally based on winning, it is challenging to maintain one’s humility. Anyone can win ruthlessly, but few can win honorably. Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte played the sport of baseball honorably, and for that, we should all doff our caps, say thank you, and let history judge them from here. I have a feeling time will be kind to them.

They could have and should have, but somehow did not…

The bitter taste of defeat at home.

Last night, a milestone Yankees season, and a brief but thrilling postseason bid, was brought to an end. To say that I am disappointed would be a tremendous understatement.

I am crushed. And all of the Bronx with me.

The game was not lost when Alex Rodriguez struck out to end a Yankees postseason for the second year in a row. Nor was it lost when CC Sabathia surrendered a run in his first career relief appearance, or any of the times the Yankees failed to drive in runs with the bases loaded. No, the game was lost when Derek Jeter stepped to the plate with Brett Gardner on first base and two outs in the bottom of the eighth, and drove a ball deep to right field. As the ball sailed up into the night sky a crowd of 50,000, and hundreds of thousands watching on television, stood and roared. With the Yankees down 3-2, and having squandered numerous scoring opportunities, it appeared the Captain was going to pull through once again. But the flight for glory fell back to earth far too soon, settling into the glove of Don Kelly mere inches from the wall. The onlookers stood stunned and silent. Jeter and Gardner retreated into the home dugout, the Tigers trotted relieved into theirs, and the camera focused on one dejected Yankees fan, head held in hands, slumped forward in his seat, eyes watering with a look of utter disbelief. One hundred and sixty-seven games in all, and yet one run short.

It could not end like this. It just could not.

Who could ignore Jeter reaching the 3,000 hit milestone on a home run?

Not after the regular season. Not after the Yankees, considered to be eclipsed by a far superior Red Sox team, instead actually outlasted their Boston rivals and seized the American League East title for themselves. Not after the cobbled together starting rotation had given the Yankees all they could have hoped for and more. Not after Curtis Granderson’s MVP-caliber year. Not after Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit. Not after Mariano Rivera’s 602nd save. Not after Ivan Nova’s stellar rookie season. Not after the lights out year the bullpen had in relief. Not after leading the major leagues in home runs. Not after Robinson Cano hit a grand  slam in Game 1 of the Division Series. Not after Jorge Posada played his heart  out in the series. And especially not after an incredible Game 4, with AJ Burnett’s silencing of the critics and Granderson’s remarkable season saving defensive plays. Not after, not after, not after…

But that is the beauty of baseball, is it not? And is not the beauty of loyally supporting a team in any sport through thick and thin best displayed, not in the victories, but in the losses? The only thing worse than never winning, is never losing. It is the agony of defeat that makes the victories all the sweeter. It is a glorious tragedy when the team you love and adore crashes and burns. You know these players. You know their quirks, their flaws, their skills. You have seen them stumble and fail, but you have also seen them rise and succeed. These players have given you more than just wins and losses: they have given you memories.

For this reason I do not fault the 2011 New York Yankees for failing to reach the World Series, though I am certainly heartbroken. After all, the Yankees did actually outscore the Tigers in the series 28-17. And can you really fault A-Rod for floundering at the plate? He had just come off of knee surgery, made several key sacrifice RBI’s and walks, and played a superb third base. Might it be Joe Girardi’s fault instead for putting a struggling player in the clean-up spot? And if Mark Teixeira had only hit that one long fly ball a shade to the right it would have been a home run, which would mean Game 5 would have been tied 3-3. And can you blame Nova for the sudden arm tightening? Phil Hughes certainly answered the call, as did Boone Logan, and Sabathia, despite giving up a run, fought admirably after being placed in uncharted territory by his skipper. Certainly it was not the Yankees at fault for the loss, but rather a cruel twist of fate.

Granderson's incredible defensive plays kept the Yankees alive for one more night, and would endear him to fans.

Yes, this is the great joy of loyally supporting a team: even in defeat, it is never your team’s fault. It is always the uncontrollable factor, the unlucky move, the unforeseeable circumstance. After all, if Cano’s bat had not shattered, that line drive certainly would have been the game tying home run.

All in all, as bitterly disappointing as elimination is, there are always memories made, moments of glory and exultation made all the brighter thanks to their surrounding defeats. I know that Burnett’s performance in Game 4 will define his career, and will encourage me for years to come both on the field and off that one can never truly be counted out (and, I must admit, boost my confidence now whenever he is pitching). Granderson’s two catches were worthy of a much better fate than to merely force a heartbreaking loss in Yankee Stadium. And I will always remember a tearful Jorge Posada, alone at the top of the dugout steps, watching Rodriguez trudge dejectedly back from the plate as the Yankees fled into the clubhouse. In the days to come, sportscasters will marvel at the Yankees defeat, and fans everywhere will no doubt unfairly make Rodriguez a scapegoat and wail that these Yankees “just do not have it.” I however, will not be one of them. I will curse the defeat, but never curse my Yankees.

So, to you, 2011 New York Yankees, the team that could have but somehow did not, I say this: thanks for the memories, both painful and joyous, and for another wonderful season.

Just wait till next year…