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Category: Sports

These are difficult days in the universe of baseball. Or at least in my universe. The San Francisco Giants, world champs in three of the last seven seasons, can’t catch a break this year. They don’t stink, exactly, but they don’t smell of roses either.

As we emerge from the All-Star break, it is the universe of the Los Angeles Dodgers that gives off the fragrant aroma of good fortune and high hopes. With the irrepressible Astros of the American League, they share the best record in major league baseball. At the points where L.A.’s universe overlaps the Giants’, interestingly, we lead 6 wins to 4. That, however, is faint consolation to me and my last-in-the-West team. We can’t hit, we can’t pitch, and our world-class horse Madison Bumgarner hurt his pitching arm…dirt biking.

The Dodgers, by contrast, can do no wrong. Their horse, Clayton Kershaw, is his usual dominant self. Their starting third baseman has the highest batting average in either league. Last week they came from behind to win with a walk-off walk that was preceded by three other walks. The baseball gods aren’t just smiling on Da Bums, they’re grinning from ear to ear.

Now, I have friends who are Dodgers fans. Everybody knows a few. They’re always very nice about the Giants. Root for them outside the rivalry and all that. At the very least, I appreciate the gesture. This year, though, it is L.A. who is on the crest of the wave, and now my friends wish to seduce me into rooting for the Dodgers. “Your boys are out of it,” they say. “Why not root for us?”

As I say, these are difficult days in my baseball universe. I am not a Dodger hater, but I know that I cannot root for them to win it all. It would run counter to the fundaments of my rooting philosophy. I recall that my father stressed a geographical rationale in his rooting patterns. Once his team was eliminated from contention, he rooted for the team whose ballpark was physically closest to ours. That, in this case, would be the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Sorry Dad, but no. I’m not sure where L.A. ranks in my hierarchy of second choices, but it is not near the top. Could the Bosox swear allegiance to the Evil Empire in a similar situation? Would Auburn ever root for the Crimson Tide? Of course not. And to my bluish friends: it’s not personal, it is an axiomatic rooting principle — right there in your copy of the Rooter’s Bible.

Things have changed since my father’s day. The Giants/Dodgers rivalry has evolved since moving west. It was a spirited match-up in New York, but now a whole new dimension has been added. In The Big Apple, neither team was ever going to dislodge the Yankees as the alpha dog. But now the Yanks are out of the picture, and the Giants and Dodgers contend for bragging rights to the biggest state in the union. It has turned into, if not a blood feud, then the kind of classic rivalry that divides the universe into opposites. Like matter and antimatter, those two realities cannot intermix.

So I must focus, as Buster Posey does, on the next pitch. I cannot be distracted by yesterday’s game or “maybe next year” or solicitations from the antimatter universe. I am caught between my default position (hang tough, we can still win this thing) and mathematical elimination. I’ve just got to keep playing.

If I were to look forward (though it would be a violation of the proper rooting posture), I can imagine that mathematics might well catch up with the Giants this year. For the sake of this writing, then, let me entertain the possibility that I might end up rooting for some other team to win it all. Who would that be? As a nod to my father, let me suggest one geographically appropriate answer: the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

So you see, my Dodger friends, it’s not personal. I’m rooting strictly by the book. If the Giants fall, it’s go Angels. The Rooter’s Bible tells me so.
Win or Lose, You Decide
Okay, I’m going to say right now that it’s me. I am a dinosaur, a relic of a bygone age. I am out of step with modern norms of interpersonal conduct. Sometime during the last generation, it seems, there was a major shift in acceptable social behavior, and I have been slow to adapt.

I’m talking about touching. No, not that kind of touching, sickee. Ordinary physical contact. Hugging is perhaps the most obvious example. In recent years it has somehow become expected that we embrace others at greeting and parting, even people we barely know. The handshake and the friendly pat on the back are still around, but such modest displays of familiarity have been superseded by the intimacy of a full, two-armed embrace.

So be it. Customs change (sometimes rapidly) within a culture, and sometimes, as with hugging, across cultural boundaries. Human interaction, like language, is an ever-evolving form of communication. I accept that. I am concerned, however, by a parallel development within the world of athletic competition.

I’m not sure when it started, but there has been a sharp uptick in communicative touching in sports. The change is most noticeable to me in basketball. A teammate will miss a free throw, say, and every single member of his or her team will shake the hand of the free thrower or make physical contact in some way.

It never used to be this way. I don’t remember anyone bumping fists with Wilt Chamberlain after any of his 5,805 missed free throws. They certainly didn’t say or do anything to show him up, like moaning or rolling their eyes, but they didn’t pat him on the back, either. So why did that change?

I know that these acts are meant to signal solidarity and encouragement, but they trouble me. Part of my objection is that these gestures might send the wrong message to a teammate. I don’t think our free thrower would think that his buddies are encouraging failure, exactly, but he might get the mistaken impression that his failure is not a problem. Worse yet, these touchings might be subliminally received as signs of consolation or pity. If they are, then they might actually weaken team chemistry and lead to yet more failure. All these roads lead to losing, and in sports, that is a bad thing.

Furthermore, the touching seems a bit perfunctory, like a ritual act that must be performed. Doesn’t it lose its meaning, mixed or otherwise, if it is obligatory? The whole thing smacks of touchy-feely overreach and coddling, and I don’t see how that helps the team. Shouldn’t this kind of positive communication be reserved for success rather than failure?

Please don’t misunderstand me. There is more to sports than winning. It’s important to enjoy the contest regardless of the outcome, blah, blah, and blah. But this is competition we’re talking about. It doesn’t work as an enjoyable pastime if the participants aren’t actually trying to win. And when you get to the NBA or the Olympics, that drive is what makes the game fun. We’re not supposed to feel good about failure in this context. If we don’t feel bad about losing, then we’re not truly competing, and the whole thing becomes a charade. Who won? Who cares? Let’s have a round of hugs and all go home happy. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see the point.

I’m not a natural hugger, but I like it well enough, I guess. Most humans could use a little more shared intimacy in their lives. I’ll even hug total strangers if that will really help. When it comes to sports, however, I prefer the old ways. We’re not playing nice, we’re playing to win. If you make that free throw, I’ll give you a high five. If you miss it, I know I can count on you to try harder next time.
Being Fuji
I see where the betting professionals have installed the Chicago Cubs as the favorites to be the World Champions of baseball in 2016. While it is true that the Cubbies look very good on paper, it must be remembered that the game itself is not played on paper.

Grass is the preferred surface, and when it comes to those contests, that cursed team, though lovable, is almost certain to lose. Again.

Let me be clear. I bear no ill will toward the sad inhabitants of Wrigley Field. I root for them, in fact. I am pleased to see that they now boast the best record in baseball. But the Cubs, as I have said, live under a curse. That psychic whammy will triumph over mere numerical probabilities, and it cares not a whit for the human longing of Cubs fans.

No, the Cubs are out. Who, then, moves up the ladder as the real favorite? I am sorry, but with one exception all the other divisional leaders, both in the National and American Leagues, have the mark of the loser upon them. I feel no rancor for these teams, either; I merely report what I see. The exception I mention, interestingly, has the lowest winning percentage among this group. You know who I’m talking about. The San Francisco Giants, despite their record, must be the pick this year to become World Champions.

This is a new phenomenon. For the first time in recent memory, Los Gigantes were not an underdog heading into the season. This time, they are expected to win. As a fan, I take that as a good thing. High expectations will not weigh on these seasoned winners. I believe that they will meet those expectations and embrace them. Indeed, they will be lifted up by them.

Still, they will need my help. That is, after all, the central conceit of pulling for a team — one must believe that one’s efforts, no matter how remote from the game itself and the players in it, will help them win. According to this view of the universe, rooting matters.

Once we accept that premise, it is incumbent upon us to find an appropriate approach to our rooting. What should our stance as fans be for the season? What is our rooting posture?

I find that visualization is very helpful in these matters (just as it is for the players themselves). Since we are the favorites, shouldn’t we assume the strongest possible posture? Shouldn’t we stand, for example, like Mt. Fuji? Are we not immovable, unconquerable, and certain in our destiny?

Up here on Mt. Fuji the view is long and clear. We are visible to all, and we could see them, too — if they weren’t so small. And do you see it there, up ahead in the distance and visible over the curvature of time? That is another Fuji. It is ourselves in October, serene and unassailable and victorious. It is written, and so it will be.

So Godspeed to the Cubs. Let them have their Spring of hope and a Summer of excellence. Let them dominate the Cardinals in the fall and banish the Dodgers from the playoffs. Let them yearn for glory…until the very end. For when that day comes, it will be the San Francisco Giants, as expected, who stand apart from the rest, a towering presence above all of baseball.

I declare this to be my rooting posture this year. I am resolute, I am sure, I am Mt. Fuji.
The LeBron Olympics
Let me just say, right off the top, that LeBron James is the greatest athlete on planet Earth. Just watching him play basketball, you know he could play any sport and win. He looks like a man among boys out there, even when some of the boys are half a foot taller than he is.

He has speed, strength, size, agility, touch, vision, hand/eye coordination, and the will to win. He may even be the greatest athlete of the last hundred years — or ever. Now, please don’t come at me with your Michael Jordans, your Jim Thorpes, your Bo Jacksons, or whatever other great athlete you might suggest. Just picture any of them standing next to LeBron James, dress them in any uniform you like, then tell me they could beat LeBron …at anything. Unless you insist on getting into very specific cases (like the hundred-meter dash, say), you are just not being serious if you pick anyone besides King James.

Okay, I suppose Roger Federer would beat him at tennis, and Tony Hawk could out-skateboard him, but beyond those narrow fields of expertise, LeBron would crush them. No disrespect, but there it is.

If you are still not convinced, perhaps we should conduct a thought experiment involving an imaginary Olympics. Here are the rules: LeBron against the other top contenders for greatest athlete, all competing in every individual sport in the modern Summer Olympics (no Winter Olympics, I’m afraid — they’re just too silly).

First, track and field. Bo Jackson and Jim Brown (or Deion Sanders, if you must) might edge LeBron in the sprints, but he or MJ would take most of the other races. LeBron would go on to sweep the field events — and, of course, the decathlon (the winner of which, incidentally, if often referred to as the “world’s greatest athlete”). He’d win that event, by the way, with a new Olympic record.

In swimming, it’s all Lebron (unless Michael Phelps is competing). In gymnastics, you’d have to favor the smaller athletes, but I’d still place LeBron in the top three. Same with diving. Rhythmic gymnastics would be a runaway, with LeBron excelling with a particularly creative ball routine.

Wrestling: no contest. Boxing: probably, although Jim Brown might win on ferocity alone. Trampoline: of course. As far as all those ridiculous events involving horses and rifles and boats and bicycles, I’m just going to write in LeBron as well, but I won’t waste our time arguing about it.

And that’s it. LeBron James wins the LeBron Olympics, a zillion to practically nothing. And you know why? Because he’s the greatest athlete of all time.
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