Friday, October 28, 2011

World Series, Comebacks & the Focus of Athletes

I give up on baseball a lot. If you had followed the Kansas City Athletics and now the Seattle Mariners, you would too. If you look at the gutting of great but poor teams every year you would too. Last night I gave up on the World Series. I turned off it off in the 7th inning with Texas leading the Cardinals 7-4.

Three minutes later a good friend called, “you have got to see this,” he laughed. I turned it back on and witnessed history and athletic greatness. The Cardinals pulled to within two.

Now it is the ninth inning. Both teams bullpens are fried. Both teams exhausted, but still in the game. The lead changes six times during the game, and the Cardinals come from behind five times in the game.  Add five errors to the mix. This is about greatness not beauty

Now it is the bottom of the ninth and the Cardinals are up to bat and down by two runs. It  should be over. Neftali Feliz is throwing 98 mph. Two men on base with two outs and two strikes on David Freese, the St. Louis third baseman with one error in the game.

Kids dream of these moments. They hum the roar of the crowd, frown and stare; they focus; the kid can be either the pitcher who strikes the guy out or the batter who hits the home run. Either way, this is baseball, pure.—skill and focus against skill and focus. No people bumping and guarding you, no intermediaries, just one player pitching to another. No more naked moment of competitive testing of skill and focus exists in sport.

More often than not, this moment ends with an out. The great Casey strikes out in Casey at the Bat for a reason; that is the baseball norm. The odds of getting a hit with two outs are low. The odds of getting a hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth are infinitesimal. Freese looks blank, clear and ready. Feliz delivers, and Freese rips a triple to left; two runs score. Game is tied and on to extra innings.

Top of the tenth, game tied again.  The Rangers’ Josh Hamilton has been hobbled all year and is fighting a slump. He comes to the plate with a man on. Hamilton looks oddly at peace but poised, ready. He slams a home run, and the Texas Rangers are up by two in the tenth.

Now it is the bottom of the tenth. The fans voices come out strangled and hoarse; no one can quite believe the game. The Cardinals have no one left on their bench.  Somehow two more cardinals end up on base. One scores on a fielder’s choice. The Rangers stand one strike from their first World Championship.

Lance Berkeman a grizzled veteran only Tony LaRusso could love walks to the plate. He settles in, takes in his surrounding and battles. The at bat culminates again with two outs and two strikes. Berkeman loops a single, and a run scores. Game tied, again. I turn off the sound for a moment and can’t shout anymore having blown my voice.

Point of information, like many fans I underappreciated this World Series and I was watching it without really have a team, so I told myself. It was an aesthetic exercise watching for enjoyment of the game. I mean I am from Kansas City and American league born and bred so how could I root for the Cardinals? But as often happens to neutral fans like I wanted to be, your body betrays you. When the Rangers got ahead my stomach clenched. Whey the Cardinals tied, I hooted. So league and state rivalry aside, I could not root for the team that signed Alex Rodriquez from the Mariners.

So a hum drum top of the eleventh and then David Freese walks to the plate again, first batter in the top of the eleventh. No need to be dramatic, he hits a walk off home run. People scream, shout, yell, dance. The Rangers trudge off in disbelief and tonight game seven will be played.

I do not know who will win tonight and do not believe it matters to the greatness of the game I witnessed and the two teams both coming back in the ninth, tenth and eleventh innings.

The point of the game to me is how Freese, Berkeman and Hamilton exemplified moral and psychological component of an elite player.

An elite athlete remains a relentless competitor. As Winston Churchhill admonished they “never, never, never give up.”

Lance Berkman got it right. When asked “what were you thinking when you went to bat” in the tenth? He answered, “I wasn’t thinking.” He is absolutely correct. To succeed at this level a player cannot afford to think. It cuts your reaction time. If you think, you’re done. A good player comes to the plate being totally present; not blank, but fully aware. They are anticipatory without anticipating, that commits them too early.

The art of superb play requires total prepared focus and recognition that enables a fine athlete to strike with the right response at the right time. Players on both teams demonstrated this.

The other side of focus and presence is not to get distracted. The world may be going crazy around you, the stakes may be suffocating and the energy may be flowing, but a player cannot afford to be moved by emotions. Emotions distract perception; they color recognition and push people to give up, try too hard, or just lose their timing.

Any one of the players could have been diverted even a nanosecond by the pressure, stakes and noise. Instead each collected himself called up his prepared awarenss and responded, well.

I know that I do not have the mental intensity and toughness to be an elite athlete or manager. I give up too much easily especially on baseball. Luckily the players in this 2011 World Series did not.

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