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The Big Choke?

For as long as I can remember there have been many epic battles between the Boston Red Sox and Yankees. Growing up a Red Sox fan most of those epic battles went to the bad guys. This summer I watched one such series with about ten young Yankees fans at the NYMA summer camp, and holding true to the script the Yankees beat the Red Sox in the a great series.en epic battles between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Because I grew up as a Red Sox fan, most of those epic battles went to the bad guys. It was no different this summer, when I watched a Boston/New York series with ten young Yankee fans at a Go Swim summer camp. The guys in pinstripes beat the Red Sox in an exciting series. It was great fun for everyone…except me. I can still hear the cheering and laughing.

Flash-forward to last night, when I watched the Boston Red Sox put the finishing touches on the greatest series comeback in Major League Baseball history — perhaps in ALL sports history. (In the history of the seven-game series, for the three major sports with this format, only two hockey teams had ever won. DESCRIBE THE IMAGE No team in MLB has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to force a game 7, let along WIN game 7. This is truly a remarkable achievement for the Red Sox, and a testament to their team. I hope lots of kids were allowed to stay up and watch this series. It had plenty of the kind of moments that dreams are made of. It showed what can happen if a team believes and doesn’t give up.

Johnny Damon, and Mark Bellhorn were two individuals on the Red Sox team that were having terrible series through the first three games and into the fourth game. To their credit they didn’t give up, and their teammates didn’t stop believing. Last night Johnny Damon came through in a big way. He went 3 for 6 with a second-inning grand slam and another solo shot in the fourth. Two nights ago Mark Bellhorn hit a home run that made the difference in game 6. He followed up that effort with another two-run blast in the 8th inning to seal the deal in game 7.

And who can forget the effort put in by David "Big Papi" Ortiz? He had the kind of game that every kid dreams about playing. Yanks vs. Red Sox. It’s the ALCS. The game is tied in extra innings. You step to the plate and deliver a big fly walk off. I can’t remember how many times I played backyard baseball and pictured myself in that scenario. He was there twice…in the Bigs.

One thing was striking about the team. They are, in Gary Sheffield’s words, "a bunch of characters" who seemed to do nothing but want to play. With their long hair and beards they look like a grown-up version of the Bad News Bears. I think Terry Francona summed it up best in his post victory interview, "they like to play Baseball." 

As I watched the post-game celebrations and interviews, something struck me. People saw the outcome of this series in two ways. The first is that the Red Sox believed in themselves, played tough, and came back to win a miraculous series. The second is that the Yankees choked. The same team that won 101 regular-season games, 3 ALDS games, and 3 ALCS games, choked.

DESCRIBE THE IMAGE The second analysis is one that I can’t stand. It starts with the announcers in the booth (guys who know a thing or two about baseball and some of whom have actually played the game). Then it trickles down to the sportscaster on your local TV who may have dabbled in the sports arena in college or high school. Then it passes to the guy on the AM morning show (he may or may not have ever played sports), who gets in his two cents of Yankee bashing. It comes to rest with the Monday Morning Quarterback (I don’t know the baseball equivalent for the football term). It is easy to be this guy/girl. I know because I have played Monday Morning Quarterback and will probably do it again in the future. The biggest problem is that when I do it, I am saying that the team coulda, shoulda, and woulda won. This is all very easy to say because you watched the game while sitting on a couch (when maybe you coulda shoulda woulda been out at the batting cage or playing flies-and-grounders with your buddies). The simple fact remains that you aren’t out there doing it. So how can you say that the Yankees gave up, didn’t try, or didn’t care?

Yes, the Yankees make tons of money, and that makes them susceptible to criticism. From what I saw, Matsui, Arod, and Sheffield had a pretty solid series collectively. They just didn’t win. In every game there is going to be a winner and a loser. Joe Torre explained it in his post-loss interview. He had nothing but praise for his team and their effort. His acknowledgment was that try as hard as you might  "sometimes the bounces don’t go your way." The same guy who has done nothing but win as a Yankee manager, is he a loser?

This sounds a lot like compassion for the Yankees. What am I thinking, this is one of the first times in my life that I have had a chance to gloat. I think that it has something to do with being a Bills Fan as a kid. I can remember the national media hopping on the Boy I Love Losing Superbowls (BILLS) bandwagon. But the fact remains that there are 28 other teams that will not be in the World Series this year, and the Yankees got a lot closer than 27 of them (the loser of game 7 in the NLCS will be in the same boat). They have one of the best offensive arsenals ever assembled, and were half of the "team" that gave us the best baseball series I can remember. There were times when I forgot I was watching baseball, it was that exciting.

Now the swimming tie-in. This summer we had a chance to watch several world records fall in swimming. In a few cases, the world record was broken by the first- AND second-place swimmer or team. Would you call those second-place finishers "losers?" Would you say that they choked? That they didn’t try their very best? The answer is an easy and resounding NO! Yet we constantly judge the second-place finisher as the big loser. This is a place in sport that only the top .01% (or 99.99th percentile, thanks for the correction Dave) ever get a chance to take a sniff at.

This past week there was a rather lengthy forum discussion about the character of Dave Denniston. Dave is, without question, one of the world’s best swimmers. He will be remembered as one of the best swimmers in the history of our sport. I had two major beefs with the string. First is that Dave was talking about walking out of a hypothetical swimming set. I have seen all of the "swimming is life" T-shirts and understand the metaphor. Swimming is not life. If a swimmer chooses to dog a set or even get out, that doesn’t make him a bad person. A swimming set doesn’t define the person you are. Virtues like respect for others, honesty, and personal responsibility (to name a few) would be better indicators.

Secondly, if the post were written by Brendan Hansen (which it wasn’t), it would be one thing. I don’t know Brendan, but I would venture to guess that he wouldn’t write something like this. There are only a few people who have any idea what they need to do to get to the level of elite world-class swimmer. The point I am trying to make is that the focus of sport should be doing what you can. When professionals and amateurs alike get to this stage, they have put the time and effort in to separate themselves from the rest of us. Talent alone cannot take you to the upper echelon of swimming or any other sport. They are the best at what they do, and they are trying as hard as they can; otherwise, they wouldn’t be there. Knowing that you aren’t perfect, and that you can’t do everything right, is a part of it, and they have to find what works well for them. If an athlete gets first, second, fifth…or last, then that is what happened and they can adjust accordingly.

As fans, coaches, and spectators we have to respect what athletes are trying to do, and how far they have come. I think that a hats-off to both the Red Sox AND the Yankees is in order. While we are at it, how about a big up to those athletes who weren’t even there but who make a living doing what they love to do, and are chasing a dream. I don’t think that they need a trophy for finishing out of the medals, or not winning. They also don’t deserve our criticism of what they were trying to accomplish.

To the Yankees fans at the NYMA camp, he who laughs last, laughes the loudest. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA. Yeah…GO SOX. WOOOOO YEAH! Eric, thanks for the American League Champion Red Sox T-shirt. I will make sure to get you a Yankees T-shirt next summer as a reminder.