You’ve noticed this, no doubt, but there really are many, many things we talk and write about in sports that have nothing whatsoever to do with reality. Think about how much talk there was this off-season about Cliff Lee pitching for the New York Yankees. There was discussion about it, and concern about it, and excitement about it. The Cliff Lee talk filled up countless talk radio hours, used up a whole lot of newsprint in newspapers across the country, overloaded web servers from coast to coast. The talk was so pervasive, in fact, that it transcended the basic “How good will the Yankees be with Cliff Lee?” conversation and moved on to how unfair the game is that the Yankees, needing starting pitching, can just go out and sign the guy.
Well, of course, Cliff Lee did not sign with the Yankees. And all that talk, all those words, all that computer memory, all them just disappeared into the ether. It wasn’t just that the talk was meaningless … it became entirely empty, like it had never even happened. We live in the era of the Story Mirage. Once Lee signed with the Phillies, all those stories became less than worthless. They became invisible.
And, it seems that invisible talk has become the norm in sports talk. Maybe it was always like this. Sports, thankfully, are so unpredictable that almost everything that is said in advance of a game or an event or a decision are likely to be wrong. The other day, ESPN ran a little segment on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, and they had probably 10 different NFL GMs talking about him.
And the two things that struck me about what these men were saying was:
1. How utterly meaningless their words sounded. I realize that GMs don’t want to reveal their hand, but in this case there’s nothing to reveal. Everyone knows that Cam Newton is the No. 1 pick in the draft. And still, these men who have spent their whole lives playing football, studying football, living football, they were saying things like: “He has a great arm,” and “He’s a terrific athlete.” I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that if you got 10 moderate football fans — and I mean moderate, the sort who watch like three games a year — they would have said EXACTLY the same things as these NFL GMs were saying, word for word.
2. How they really have no idea how good an NFL quarterback Cam Newton will be.
If NFL general managers who study the game 18 to 20 hours every day don’t know, really know, how good the Heisman Trophy winner will be, then how do any of us know anything about anything? And the truth is, we don’t know anything about anything. This is obvious in a million ways, but the most obvious of the ways is the “Keys to the Game” the color commentators offer on TV before each game. These keys usually have a goofy title that ties in with the name of the announcer like “Phil-osophy” or “Millen’s Mistakes” or something. But, like the NFL GMs on Newton, the keys are almost always either (1) Inane* or (2) Completely wrong.
*Win the turnover battle. … Get off to a fast start … Don’t settle for field goals … Run the football … Stop the run … Blocking and tackling … Convert on third down … Win the battle of field position … Play with fire …
Of all the many ways that we talk nonsense about sports, I would say the “How will this team/player react after a tough loss?” question is probably the most nonsensical. Michael Schur and I talked a bit about this on the Poscast — we talked about how fans and players have very different approaches to the games — but this struck me again the other day. I heard Charles Barkley talk at length about how he was really curious, REALLY CURIOUS, to see how the Dallas Mavericks would react after blowing a huge lead against Portland in Game 4 of their series.
I thoroughly enjoy Charles Barkley on TV. He makes me laugh, he makes strong points that others seem unwilling to make, he is one of those rare announcers who turns a game on TV into an event. That said: I was stunned to hear him say that bit about how the Mavericks would react. I was stunned to hear it because it was SO MUCH like the studio cliche and SO LITTLE like how Charles Barkley really talks.
Barkley was one of the greatest players in NBA history. He is one of the all-time lancers of pointless pregame cliches. The man announced he wasn’t a role model, for crying out loud. And yet, he was curious how the Mavericks would react? Really? Did he actually think that the Dallas Mavericks, who have averaged more than 55 wins a season for a decade, a team of ancient stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion and Jason Terry would somehow BE AFFECTED by blowing an NBA lead? There is absolutely no way he could have thought that.
But he said it. And he said it again. And he talked more about it. Apparently something happens to us when we start talking sports. We can’t help but create stories in our minds, stories that have nothing to do with reality. Kenny Smith was so taken aback by Barkley’s line of thinking that he reminded Barkley how his Rockets twice blew huge playoff leads to Barkley’s Suns and still won the series. “What you really think is, ‘Wow, it’s really easy to get a big lead on them,” Smith said, which was a great bit of insight, I think, into the mind of a high-level athlete.
The story has been told over and over and over again in sports. Albert Pujols nuked that homer off Brad Lidge, as crushing a home run as any of the last 50 years … the Astros won the next game.
Carlton Fisk beat the Reds on one of the most famous home runs in baseball history off the foul pole … the Reds won the next game.
Jerry West made his legendary 60-foot shot … the Knicks won in overtime.
The Broncos beat the Browns on the drive … they lost 39-20 in the Super Bowl.
The Broncos beat the Browns on the fumble … they lost 42-10 in the Super Bowl.
The 1985 Lakers lost to Boston by 34 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals … they won the series in six games.
The 1951 New York Giants won the pennant, won the pennant, won the pennant in the most dramatic fashion imaginable and won two of the first three games of the World Series. They promptly lost three in a row.
And so on, and so on, and so on.
Momentum, like experience, like chemistry, like the ability to deliver in the clutch, like so many other vague sports traits we talk about all the time — hey, I’m not saying that these things do not exist or do not play any role in our games. I’m saying that we talk these things up, again and again, not because of their importance (we don’t really know their importance) or because of their significance (they are almost NEVER significant). We talk about them because they make for good talk.
Inevitably, the talk rarely adds up to anything. The Mavericks easily beat the Blazers on Monday night. Nowitzki went for 25, Terry for 20, Kidd handed out 15 assists, Tyson Chandler grabbed 20 rebounds. Not surprisingly, they did not seem shell-shocked or even slightly bothered in the least by what had happened in Game 4. And if you think even a little bit about it, well, of course they weren’t.