Monday, January 23, 2012

Failure in Sports

Failure once again raised its hairy head in national sports. Both conference championships were decided by the failure of two players. Billy Cundiff yanked a chippy field goal left to end the Baltimore Ravens' season and just a few hours later, Kyle Williams fumbled a second punt--this one in overtime--which allowed the New York Giants to kick the game winning field goal. Ironically, the Giants' winning kick was the same distance as Cundiff's miss.

Failure is the dark side of sports. But failure is also the single element that defines sports. For every team that wins, another loses. On an individual level, the heroics of one man or woman is only possible by the failure of another. The recorded winner of the 500 metres speed skating even was Uwe-Jens Mey. But that race is much more known as the race Dan Jansen fell down just days after his sister had died. Jansen would fall again in the 1000 metres race.

The 1978 playoff game to settle the American League East champion pitted the New York Yankees against the Boston Red Sox on October 2, 1978 in Fenway Park. The game will forever be known for Bucky Dent's improbable three run homer. But everyone knows that pitch was thrown by Mike Torres who gets saddled by history as the failure of that game.

But he wasn't alone. The score was 5-4 heading into the bottom of the ninth. The usually reliable Goose Gossage had already given up two runs to tighten the game to its eventual score. And he was on the ropes again in the ninth. The Red Sox got two men on base but had two out. Hall of Fame player, Carl Yastrzemki came to the plate and could push the Red Sox to the post season with a hit. Yaz had already hit a homer and drove in another run with a single in the game accounting for two of the Red Sox' four runs. For Red Sox fans everywhere, Yaz failed them as he popped weakly to the foul side of third to end the game and the season for his team.

The defining poem of sports,  Casey at the Bat, has its ultimate moment in the failure of Mighty Casey that sent the citizens of Mudville home unhappy. The resonance of the poem for generations was the failure. Yaz became Mighty Casey. Billy Buckner will forever be known for the Mookie Wilson grounder that went through his legs. Mitch Williams blew the save that gave Joe Carter glory and the Toronto Blue Jays their second straight World Series crown. Failure is more poignant than success and is remembered much longer. The most memorable hole of golf ever played will be Jean Van de Velde's 72nd hole in the 1999 British Open. Does anyone remember who actually won that tournament?

In no sport is failure more built into the sport than baseball. The best hitters fail sixty percent of the time. The best teams lose nearly forty percent. The best pitchers ever lost thirty percent of the time or more. And the game is only decided when the last three outs are made. Three failures end every game.

Kyle Williams and Billy Cundiff are to be pitied and not exploited. They aren't the firsts and they won't be the last. Before Cundiff, there was Gary Anderson, Scott Kaeding and of course, Scott Norwood. Yes, they failed. Someone had to do it.

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