Why do they even play?

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Charles Krautham­mer, who has won the Pulitzer Prize for com­men­tary, writes for the Wash­ing­ton Post.

In math­e­mat­ics, when you’re con­vinced of some eter­nal truth but can’t quite prove it, you of­fer it as a hy­poth­e­sis (with a por­ten­tous cap­i­tal H) and in­vite the world, fu­ture gen­er­a­tions if need be, to prove you right or wrong. Of­ten, a cash prize is at­tached.

In that spirit, but with­out the cash, I of­fer the Krautham­mer Con­jec­ture: In sports, the plea­sure of win­ning is less than the pain of los­ing. By any Ben­thamite plea­sure/pain cal­cu­la­tion, the sum is less than zero. A net neg­a­tive of suf­fer­ing. Which makes you won­der why any­body plays at all.

Win­ning is great. You get to hoot and holler, hoist the tro­phy, shower in cham­pagne, ride the open pa­rade car and boy­cott the White House vic­tory cer­e­mony (choose your cause).

But, as most who have en­gaged in com­pet­i­tive sports know, there’s noth­ing to match the am­pli­tude of emo­tion brought by los­ing. When the Cleve­land Cava­liers lost the 2015 NBA Fi­nals to Golden State, LeBron James sat mo­tion­less in the locker room, star­ing straight ahead, still wear­ing his game jer­sey, for 45 min­utes af­ter the fi­nal buzzer.

Here was a guy im­mensely wealthy, widely ad­mired, at the peak of his pow­ers—yet stricken, in­con­solable. So it was for Ralph Branca, who gave up Bobby Thom­son’s shot heard ’round the world in 1951. So too for Roy­als short­stop Fred­die Patek, a (lit­eral) pic­ture of de­jec­tion sit­ting alone in the dugout with his head down af­ter his team lost the 1977 pen­nant to the New York Yan­kees.

In 1986 the To­day Show com­mem­o­rated the 30th an­niver­sary of Don Larsen pitch­ing the only perfect game in World Se­ries his­tory. They in­vited Larsen and his bat­tery mate Yogi Berra. And Dale Mitchell, the man who made the last out. Mitchell was not amused. “I ain’t fly­ing 2,000 miles to talk about strik­ing out,” he fumed. And any­way, the called third strike was high and out­side. It had been 30 years and Mitchell was still mad. (Justly so. Even the Yan­kee field­ers ac­knowl­edged that the fi­nal pitch was out­side the strike zone.)

For ev­ery mo­ment of tri­umph there is an un­equal and op­po­site feel­ing of de­spair. Take that iconic pho­to­graph of Muham­mad Ali stand­ing tri­umphantly over the pros­trate, semi­con­scious wreck­age of Sonny Lis­ton. Great photo. Now think of Lis­ton. Do the plea­sure/pain cal­cu­lus.

And we are talk­ing here about pro­fes­sional ath­letes—not even the le­gions of Lit­tle Lea­guers, freshly elim­i­nated from the play­offs, sob­bing and snif­fling their way home, as­suaged only by gal­lons of Baskin-Rob­bins.

Any par­ent can at­test to the Krautham­mer Con­jec­ture. What sur­prises is how of­ten it applies to bat­tle-hard­ened pro­fes­sion­als mak­ing mil­lions.

I don’t feel sorry for them. They can drown their sor­rows in the Olympic-sized in­fin­ity pool that graces their Florida es­tate. (No state in­come tax.) I am merely fas­ci­nated that, de­spite their other sub­stan­tial com­pen­sa­tions, some of them re­ally do care. Most in­ter­est­ingly, of­ten the very best.

Max Scherzer, ace pitcher for the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als, makes $30 mil­lion a year. On the mound, for­get the money. His will to win is scary. Ev­ery time he reg­is­ters a strike­out, he stalks off the mound, cir­cling, head down, as if he’s just brought down a mastodon.

On June 6, tir­ing as he ap­proached vic­tory, he be­gan growl­ing—yes, like a hun­gry tiger—at Chase Ut­ley as he came to the plate. “It was beau­ti­ful,” was the head­line of the blog en­try by the Wash­ing­ton Post’s Scott Allen.

When Scherzer gets like that, man­agers are ac­tu­ally afraid to go out and tell him he’s done. He goes Mad Max. In one such in­stance last year, as Scherzer la­bored, man­ager Dusty Baker came out to the mound. Scherzer glared.

“He asked me how I was feel­ing,” Scherzer re­counted, “and I said I still feel strong … I still got one more hit­ter in me.”

Asked Baker, de­mand­ing visual con­fir­ma­tion: “Which eye should I look at?”

Scherzer, who fa­mously has one blue and one brown eye, shot back: “Look in the [ex­ple­tive] brown eye!”

“That’s the pitch­ing one,” he jok­ingly told re­porters af­ter the game.

Baker left him in.

Af­ter los­ing her first ever UFC match, mixed mar­tial artist Ronda Rousey con­fessed that she was in the cor­ner of the med­i­cal room, “lit­er­ally sit­ting there think­ing about killing my­self. In that ex­act sec­ond, I’m like, ‘I’m noth­ing.’” It doesn’t get lower than that.

Said Vince Lom­bardi, “Win­ning isn’t ev­ery­thing. It’s the only thing.” To which I add—con­jec­ture—yes, but los­ing is worse.


Charles Krautham­mer

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