Rally caps and what ifs

I recently wrote a post on avoiding celebrating at halftime as the game is not over. Too many politicians want to spike the ball celebrating success, when it has not yet happened. To illustrate my point, I used several games where premature celebration proved unwise. This got me thinking about some other premature celebrations in the sporting world to illustrate a few life lessons about thinking you won before you did or overcoming an obstacle to win..

Baseball has a fun tradition of camaraderie for a team that is woefully behind its opponent late in the game called “Rally Caps.” The magnitude of the deficit will dictate how early rally caps are deployed. The losing team will invert their ball caps and wear them backward in the dugout as they root their teammates on. While baseball is a team game, a key part is based on one individual batting against a pitcher. If a batter gets a hit, the next batter starts to think he or she can too. And, momentum can build.

The Boston Red Sox baseball team has participated in two such rallies in World Series games, losing one and winning one. They lost a lead in game six (out of a potential seven) of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets, sadly with the game ending on a key mistake by one of its better players. Eleven years before, the Red Sox rallied in another game six against the Cincinnati Reds trailing 6 to 0, winning on a big home run in the eleventh inning. For non-baseball fans, the retelling of this story by Robin Williams to Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting” was a pivotal moment of the movie.

In golf, Arnold Palmer succeeded and failed in two separate US Opens, one of the four major championships. In 1960, he was seven shots behind the leader, when he was asking a sports writer what he needed to shoot in the last round to come back and win. The sports writer told him he had zero chance of winning and laughed. Palmer proceeded to shoot a seven under 65 and win the tournament. Six years later, Palmer had a seven shot lead in the US Open in the final round. He continued to play aggressively while Billy Casper, the best golfer few have heard of, started making putts. Casper would go on to win in a play off.

In basketball, Coach Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels was famous for come from behind wins. One in particular stood out as his team trailed a Florida State Seminoles basketball team by twenty plus points in the second half. Since basketball is a game of momentum, Smith’s team starting playing more aggressively and in short order had halved the lead. Then, Smith called an unusual time out which the announcers questioned. Smith later said he wanted the other team to think more about what was happening. The Tar Heels went on to win easily.

Sports give us many examples of why early celebration is unwise. The above illustrate what can happen when teams or individuals that are ahead start thinking of winning and less of doing what it takes to get there. It also shows how a determined opponent can overcome obstacles. And, it shows how a person or team who think they can win, can build its momentum from a small crack of success.

Let me end with one more story which is telling based on the mental aspects of the game. In golf’s British Open (or The Open as it is called there), Frenchman Jean Van de Velde will go down as the golfer more people anguished over than any other. He walked to the last hole of the tournament with a three shot lead at Carnoustie in 1999. He needed to shoot only a double bogey six to win.

The tragic man made a series of poor club and shot selections that painfully unfolded on live TV coverage and he lost the tournament to Paul Lawrie who started the day ten shots behind the leader and behind many others. Yet, the story does not end with Van de Velde. Colin Montgomerie started the day tied with Lawrie, ten shots back. When asked, Montgomerie told a reporter he had no chance of winning, a self-defeating prediction. The man he was tied with came back and won.

If you think you can, you just might. If you think you cannot, you won’t. As for our dear Mr. Van de Velde, this is one of the few times a caddy should have not given the player the club he asked for. The player needed an intervention to stop the negative thought patterns. Like Palmer before him in 1966, he started to think about what losing a big lead would look like.*

*Note: A friend who went to Stanford was following Palmer that day in San Francisco in 1966. He recalls standing behind Palmer when he was seven shots ahead while Palmer’s ball was in the very deep rough. Palmer pulled out a driver to try to advance the ball to the green and my friend and the crowd groaned. The ball went four feet and Palmer never mentally recovered. He needed his caddy to do what Van de Velde’s should have done and handed him a different club.

Why do we expect perfection from athletes?

I am delighted for my friends in Seattle who can relish in one of the more memorable comebacks with their beloved Seahawks coming back to win over the Green Bay Packers. And, for the Green Bay fans, I empathize with you, but please do not take out your frustration on a tight end who did not come up with an onside kick. I do not want to mention his name, but he will more than likely not be forgotten in Wisconsin.

What is ironic, Russell Wilson, the terrific quarterback for the Seahawks had an unusually bad performance for the game and would have been held up as the reason for the loss, had he not led his team back to victory. Yet, why do we expect perfection from our players, when we ourselves are prone to so many mistakes?

I am reminded of Ernest Byner who was an excellent football running back for the Cleveland Browns in the 1980s. Yet, if you mention his name in Cleveland, people will remember “the fumble” where he lost the ball on the five yard line of a tragic loss to the Denver Broncos in the playoffs. The irony is Byner had played one of the most awesome games before the fumble gaining close to 200 yards in rushing in addition to other successes. So, he led the Browns that day, but is not remembered for that huge performance. He is instead remembered for the fumble.

In baseball, two mistakes occurred leading one team to the World Series, which set up the other in the World Series. Donnie Moore was a relief pitcher for the then California Angels in 1986. He was pitching hurt most of the season, but nonetheless had an effective year helping the Angels to the playoffs. His team was not supposed to win, but was about to when he was called in to finish up the last inning. Unfortunately, he was pitching on fumes and eventually gave up a game winning home run to allow the Boston Red Sox to win and go to the World Series.

In the World Series, the Boston Red Sox, who had a weak bullpen, had taken a lead in Game Six against the New York Mets, who had been favored to win. On first base was Bill Buckner, who had a marvelous season leading the team to the World Series. Yet, he should not have been playing first at the time, as the manager normally substituted for him late in the game with a more mobile and better fielder. The Mets began a two out rally in the ninth inning against the Red Sox’ less than stellar bull pen. It all came down to a slow rolling ground ball that Buckner need only to corral and step on first to end the game. Yet, Buckner let the ball go through his legs and the Red Sox lost a heartbreaker. What few people realize is they had to lose another game to lose the World Series.

Two points get overlooked here. Neither Moore or Buckner should have been in the game at that point. But, others players failed to deliver as well. The Mets knew if they could get to the Red Sox bullpen, they could win. The Angels failed time and again to deliver key hits as Moore did what he could do. Both are remembered for their failures and that is unfortunate. Moore later committed suicide, but to tie it to this failure is an over-simplification; he actually had some other demons he was dealing with.

People like to blame others for their failures. It is much easier to name names than it is to look at a greater fault that the team lost. The Packers lost because they did not score two touchdowns deep in Seahawks territory settling for field goals. They lost because they could not stop Seattle who was the best second half team of the season. The fumbled onside kick was just one factor, but the team lost. Nor should Byner be held up as a scapegoat, especially when he played so well and there was this guy named John Elway who quarterbacked the other team.

These are team sports. Teams win and lose. Like players, they are not perfect. Mistakes will occur throughout, so no one should be highlighted. As a former athlete, I have been on the good side and bad side of mistakes. I have helped win games and helped lose them. But, we all lost them or won them. I am reminded of the golfer Jim Furyk who is a tough as nails competitor, even when he played high school basketball. He wanted to be the player to take the last shot of a key basketball game. When the coached asked him why, he said because I can handle missing it. I thought that was profound as how you handle failure is what matters most.