Winning Everything Isn’t Everything

The mantra, “winning isn’t everything,” has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Maybe it was always an ethos made for movies and disingenuous Little League coaches. After all, there were Al Davis’s “Just win, baby” Raiders of the 1970s and 80s. There was the Bronx belief, during the New York Yankees dominant run between 1996 and 2003, that any year that did not end in a World Series was a failure. And there has been unceasing debate over the last twenty years about the relative worth of NBA superstars and NFL quarterbacks based on their relative ability to win, and the frequency with which they have won, team championships. America has always been a nation that admires winners.

Recently, however, it seems that the belief that winning everything is everything in sports has strangely risen from conventional wisdom to incontrovertible fact. Go no further than the hot new trend of “tanking.” Sports teams always went through boom and bust cycles as star players aged and free agents left town later to be replenished by the next young hot thing. Tanking, however, has lifted the total team rebuild to a new level. The basic idea is this: rather than build a team on the fly and compete for a playoff spot every year with good players, teams are embracing being awful with the hope of one day being great. The NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers recently threw away three consecutive seasons with teams that were so pathetic they inspired serious (though unfounded) debate about whether they would lose to the best college team. The Sixers did this intentionally, for the explicit purpose of repeatedly being one of the league’s worst teams, and in doing so reap the multiple top draft picks that such unprecedented losing would net them. Rather than be consistently good or mediocre, with an entertaining product year after year but one with a much longer shot at a championship, the Sixers were trying to be terrible in order to one day hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at season’s end. Incredibly, this controversial strategy was largely accepted among even the notoriously skeptical and unforgiving Philly fans.

Tanking is hardly unique to basketball. Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros intentionally put up three consecutive putrid seasons of 106, 107, and 111 losses from 2011 to 2013, in a sport where one 100 loss year is a noteworthy embarrassment. Today, the team is brimming with exciting young hitters as a result of all the high draft picks and top prospects the team received for losing and trading away its decent players, and only now is it receiving criticism. Not for all the losing they did when they weren’t trying, but for the failure to be great now that they have extraordinary talent. A handful of other teams are following their example.

Tanking is but one, albeit extreme, example of this remarkable shift in attitudes. Coaches with excellent regular season records are dismissed for losing in the playoffs. Popular players are traded or cut with little outcry when a better option comes along. Proven criminals are offered sweetheart contracts if they can still catch, pass, shoot, or throw. Competitive and likeable teams are dismantled the instant their front office believes a championship is out of reach. Really, all one needs to do to see how pervasive the emphasis on winning a championship at all costs is among fans is to spend a few minutes perusing sports internet comment pages or listening to sports talk radio, where the common fan vents about his team’s momentary inadequacies and demands that immediate action be taken to improve their chances of winning “a ring.” The only losing tolerated is losing in service of attaining a future championship.

But even by these standards, what the Los Angeles Dodgers have willingly sacrificed in the name of a championship this season is jaw-dropping.

On April 8th, Dodgers pitcher Ross Stripling made his major league debut on the bay against team rival San Francisco Giants. Although he allowed four men to reach base by walk, Stripling entered the eighth inning without having allowed a single hit. “No-hitters” have become a revered accomplishment in Major League Baseball. In a sport where strange new occurrences happen daily, even the threat of the familiar rarity of throwing nine hitless innings causes animated coverage. Stripling now found himself ever so close to this career-defining moment and in his first major league start to boot. That combination had happened only once before. If it happened, it would be a warm memory for not only Stripling and his family, but for Dodger fans everywhere.

So it was shocking when Dodger manager Dave Roberts walked to the mound with one out in the eighth (the no-hitter still intact) took the ball from Stripling, and called for a reliever. Stripling’s day was done. The no-hitter was no more—a setback inflicted not by personal failure or the opposing team, but through friendly-fire. Intentional friendly fire.

Roberts later explained that he removed Stripling because of the risk of injury. The rookie hurler was one year removed from Tommy John surgery (the elbow ligament replacement operation that requires approximately twelve months of recovery and another six to twelve to fully regain one’s previous strength). And his pitch count was 100, an upper limit these days for many trusted veterans, let alone balky rookies on the mend. True, managers usually stretched or abandoned their recent self-imposed pitch count restrictions when blocking a potential no-hitter. Yet Stripling was already beyond his and there were still five outs to go. He appeared fatigued and the Dodgers were clinging to a 1-0 lead. It was frustrating and an ominous precedent, but Roberts had his reasons, some of them legitimate, and one that could be dismissed as a freak confluence of unfortunate factors. He was almost universally defended at the time (though in a perfect symbol of Roberts’ affront to the sporting gods, the very first batter to face the new Dodger pitcher homered for a 2-1 Giants lead).

Then, on August 25th, the Dodgers’ front office traded away popular backup catcher AJ Ellis to the Phillies for backup catcher Carlos Ruiz. Now, Ellis is a fairly bad player for a Major Leaguer. Most backup catchers are. But Ellis had some good qualities. He was well-regarded for his “game calling,” that is, in telling the pitcher which pitches to throw. He has historically played above his regular season abilities in the playoffs. And he shares an unusually close personal bond with battery-mate Clayton Kershaw—only the game’s greatest pitcher. Kershaw and Ellis had formed a tremendous rapport and the stories of their affection for one another were touching and meaningful for many Dodger fans.

Ruiz, too, is pretty bad. Again, most backup catchers are. Once an all-star, Ruiz lost his starting job this season and continued his years-long decline into an ever-nearer retirement. His one advantage over Ellis, however, is that he hits left-handed pitching at a passable rate, something that neither Ellis nor the Dodgers generally do. With Dodgers’ starting catcher Yasmani Grandal displaying weaker numbers against lefties than righties, it made a certain amount of sense to improve the team in this area. But the Dodgers players and fans had known and loved Ellis for a decade. And although the speculation that the remaining players’ disappointment at the swap would hurt their performance was baseless, the fact remains that management discarded a fan favorite for a marginal upgrade at backup catcher. Ruiz has made just four starts in the month and a half since the trade, often sitting even against left-handed pitchers (since Grandal is actually quite good regardless of who is on the mound).

Yet it was the Dodger manager’s move on September 10th that reached the pinnacle of placing the winning of a championship above all else. That day in Miami, Florida, newly acquired starting pitcher Rich Hill threw the game of a lifetime. After seven innings at Marlins Park, Hill had retired all twenty-one batters he had faced to that point. Six more consecutive outs and he would have a perfect game—twenty-seven batters up, twenty-seven batters down, with no hits, walks, hit batters, dropped third strikes, or errors: the best any starting pitcher could hope to achieve any time he takes the mound. Unlike Stripling’s no-hit bid, a perfect game would have been a truly extraordinary accomplishment for Hill. No-hitters occur approximately twice per season (there have been 242 of them—excluding combined no hitters—in 116 years of the modern era). There have only been twenty-three perfect games in baseball history.

To be sure, Hill was far from guaranteed baseball immortality. The sport is littered with tragic examples of near historic feats cruelly snatched away at the last instant. But at only 89 pitches, Hill was as well positioned to complete the perfecto as any pitcher could hope to be at a similar point in the game. And then Dave Roberts refused to give him the chance.

Yes, concern about a reoccurrence of a blister on Hill’s left middle finger that cost him five weeks earlier in the season, led Roberts to pull Hill from the game rather than allow him a chance at achieving perfection for one night. The next morning, Roberts clarified some inconsistent remarks about whether the blister had in fact returned. He told reporters that trainers had noticed “heat” and tenderness on Hill’s fingers, and that “[t]hose are signs that the next step is a blister.” He continued: “If it was earlier in the year, I would have let him go back out there. What we’ve done since February, to get to the point where we’re at, with 2½ weeks left in the season, it just wasn’t worth the risk. Richie is throwing as good as anyone in all of baseball. To take the chance to lose him for the postseason is irresponsible.”

But here’s the thing. Rich Hill didn’t have a blister. He insisted (and continues to insist) that the blister issue is behind him. Although he’s at a higher risk of reoccurrence than his teammates, there is no evidence to suggest that another two innings of work would have triggered a relapse, just as Roberts had little evidence to suggest sending Hill back out for the seventh (which he reportedly debated) would be too much. Moreover, another blister at this stage of the season would not guarantee his absence from the playoffs. Nor would Hill’s absence from the playoffs doom the Dodgers. At best, Hill will make five playoff starts should the Dodgers make a run to the World Series, and the drop off from his run of excellence to a league average replacement would be significant but hardly disqualifying. In sum, all that can be said in Roberts’s defense is that removing Hill from the game ever so slightly decreased his chances of developing a new blister, which if it happened would slightly decrease his ability to pitch in the playoffs, which if that occurred would decrease the Dodgers odds of a championship by perhaps a percent or two. A fraction of a fraction of a fraction of improvement.

When did championship pursuits justify such monumental sacrifices in the name of minimal gains? Think of all the wasted nights 76er fans have had in pursuit of a mere theory of a championship. Think of all the satisfaction lost from watching Lebron James’s breathtaking athleticism because of the ceaseless obsession with the number of rings on his hands. And think of all the pleasure Dodger fans have been denied in the service of cautious killjoys. Sports are intended to entertain and enjoy, not simply to achieve. It’s hard not to wonder what this unfortunate single-mindedness says more broadly about how we live and enjoy our lives. In the pursuit of winning everything, there is much to lose.

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