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Sunday Discussion: Sports as Morality Play

Did we see this because baseball's just fluky sometimes, or because the Sox didn't "deserve" to win? (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Did we see this because baseball's just fluky sometimes, or because the Sox didn't "deserve" to win? (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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For a fair few of us, that picture of a defeated Jonathan Papelbon walking off the field as Orioles begin to celebrate behind him is the defining image of the 2011 season. The last devastating blow in a September full of them, Robert Andino's game-winning hit left us all like Pap: stunned, confused, and searching for the exits. And as always happens when something unpleasant occurs, we started searching for reasons why. Why did a team which had been thumping opponents left and right throughout the height of the summer suddenly look overmatched once the calendar flipped into September?

The reasons on the field were pretty simple. Kevin Youkilis was hurt, denying the Sox a big bat and leaving Mike Aviles to play out of position at third. Daniel Bard wore down from overuse, a reflection of prior bullpen attrition. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, while not terrible, weren't the rotation anchors we all expected them to be at that point. Clay Buchholz was out of commission, which forced the Sox to put too much weight on John Lackey's shredded elbow. Said elbow responded by delivering 5 starts at a 9.13 ERA. (I didn't have to B-Ref that, by the way, the number has burned itself into my brain.)

A big bat out of the lineup, a worn-out bullpen, and a battered, ineffective starting rotation. Easy explanation, right? But not, apparently, a satisfying one. This is where it got ugly. A few weeks after the Red Sox were eliminated, we all woke up to find a tell-all insider piece on the front page of the Boston Globe. Beer and fried chicken over video game marathons. A manager distracted by personal issues and apparently popping painkillers. Clearly, it was failure of will that doomed the Sox, a sort of cosmic punishment for their moral shortcomings. And now we're seeing the same treatment applied to the Patriots.

And all I can think is, why? Why do we do that? I mean, not really "we," the writers on this blog tend to stick to the on-the-field stuff and leave the moral questions to the Shaughnessys of the world. But part of the reason we leave it alone is that there are plenty of Shaughnessys out there willing to write up the cosmic significance/moral turpitude angle. And that intrigues me.

Clearly narrative plays an important role in sports. There's a thread, a plotline, running through every game, even if it is just our brain imposing continuity where there really isn't any. We've all had that "oh, everything just changed" feeling after a critical double. And that's good. If the narrative didn't matter, if the emotional ups and downs of the game's momentum weren't there, there wouldn't be much point in watching. More tangibly, there's the group dynamics involved, the "Nation" of fans, the family ties many of us associate with sports memories. So the need to imbue sports with a significance and storyline greater than just "guy hits ball, runs 90 feet, is declared safe" makes perfect sense.

And makeup absolutely plays a role as well. Plenty of players never quite reach their potential, and it's fair to wonder whether it's a matter of psychology. How we deal with failure, whether we can put outside stresses away when we do our job; these are things that affect everyone, baseball players included. I don't think any of us are really qualified to make those calls, beyond an occasional "he looks distracted on the mound" or "he's just not paying attention out there in right," but I think it's fair to wonder about them.

It's the character judgments that baffle me, the transformation of on-field events into windows to the soul. "Wes Welker dropped a late pass, so Tom Brady is now lazy and resting on his laurels." "Robert Andino got his bat on a Papelbon fastball, thus the entire Red Sox operation is fat, drunk, and/or too busy owning soccer teams to win." Every single column that has included the terms "Alex Rodriguez" and "October." The ideas that some players are "winners" and other players are "losers," or that some teams just "aren't meant to win," are all over the place. And I've no idea where it comes from. So this is where I'll leave it to you folks, because when I say I'm baffled, I mean it.

Why do we make these kind of judgments? Is this kind of analysis useful? If so, how and why? If not, is it just part of the noise around sports, or something to call out and challenge? Really curious to read what you all have to say on this.