Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why We Should All Be Rooting For The Yankees, All The Time and Everytime (Nonsportsmanlike Conduct!)

The pathways to success in America are many and varied. Beyond simply having tons of kids or sleeping with everybody you come across, you could achieve success by, say, having Kanye West embarrass you at a fake celebrity event, after which you'd be more famous than you ever were before and you'd win all sorts of awards, becoming a less-painful Nancy Kerrigan.

Or you could just be better and richer than everybody else.

If you take the first path to fame, people will feel sorry for you even though you have probably achieved a greater level of success and fame and fortune than you would have otherwise (and maybe more than you deserved.) People will say Oh, that poor Nancy Kerrigan, or Oh, that poor Taylor Swift, or Oh, that poor Erin Andrews, and will never stop to think, Wait a minute -- I never heard of Taylor Swift before Kanye took her "moment" away from her, and now I have heard of her and I've even bought her song.

Or they'll never stop to think, Wait a moment, how many other silver-medalist skaters do I remember by name?

Or they'll never stop to think Hey, you know, I don't know any other female sports reporters by name, either, especially not female sports reporters who go on TV to announce that they will never talk about this deplorable violation of their privacy again and will somehow time that one-time-only interview for the night of the big game they just happen to be covering for their network.

No, they'll only stop and think Oh, that poor person.

But if you achieve success the old-fashioned, American way -- by being better and richer than everyone else -- people will hate you for it and they'll in fact propose ever more grandiose schemes to try to take you down a peg or two or three or four. Like the Yankees. When was the last time you heard Oh, those poor Yankees? Never, that's when. Nobody feels sorry for the Yankees, because the Yankees are very good at what they do and they're rich and they win 27 World Championships over the course of their history and they're kind of arrogant about it, aren't they? So we hate them... and by "we" I mean "you" because I don't hate the Yankees. Or any of the big rich teams that win all the time. I think it's great. I think it's perfect that USC and Florida and Ohio State win all the time. I think it's just fine that the Yankees and the Red Sox are on TV fourteen times a day during the basketball season. I think it's bad for people, and sports (which is made up of people) when the Cleveland Cavaliers do pretty good for a while, or the Minnesota Twins make the playoffs or win a World Series, which they might have done, I don't know.

It's bad for people, and society, when someone Nancy Kerrigans their way to the top; it's good for people, and society, when someone Yankees their way to the top. For a bunch of reasons.

First, here's why it's bad to Nancy Kerrigan your way to fame -- unless you're a Nancy Kerrigan, that is. For people who Nancy Kerrigan their way to fame, it's good, because they got a little taste of success. For everyone else, it's bad, because it encourages people to go against everything we want people to do in a society.

You Nancy Kerrigan your way to fame and fortune and success when you get there accidentally and through no real talent of your own. I began using Nancy Kerrigan as a verb back when Nancy Kerrigan became the first one of these types of people I was aware of: People whose fame and fortune and success wouldn't exist if they hadn't suffered a happy accident. Nancy Kerrigan, as everyone knows, was an Olympic-hopeful ice skater who was kneecapped by Jeff Gillooly, ending her Olympic dreams, sort of, but catapulting her to fame and fortune beyond what she likely otherwise could have expected as an Olympic skater .

The number of Olympic skaters the average person can name can be counted on one hand, with three fingers left over: Dorothy Hamill and Nancy Kerrigan. That's it. And Nancy Kerrigan wouldn't be in there if it wasn't for having been kneecapped -- if it hadn't been for the happy accident that ended her Olympic career, Nancy Kerrigan would not be remembered today.

It's not as if Nancy Kerrigan was a great ice skater before the attack. She had finished first in competition four times in her career before the attack in 1994, and had finished 5th at the World Championships the year before. That makes her a very good ice skater -- but Dorothy Hamill at the height of her career finished 2nd, 1st, and 1st, in three consecutive World Championships, taking that last first the year she got a gold in the Olympics, and she had three consecutive 1st place finishes in the US Championships. She was a great ice skater.

But Nancy Kerrigan now can be booked as a speaker (at a cost of up to $15,000), she was given a parade at Disney World (how many 2nd place finishers can say that?). She even got to record a record, putting her in the same league as Taylor Swift, who shot to greater fame than ever the night Kanye West interrupted her and took away her "moment" by claiming that Beyonce's video was better.

Which, FYI, it was.

Taylor Swift, before Kanye jumped up on stage, had a nice little career going; it's not as though all her fame is owing to Kanye West being an idiot. But while she was doing well as a country/pop star prior to that Video Music Award incident, her career after Kanye did that has taken off. And by taken off I mean really taken off, shot into the stratosphere like a NASA rocket aimed at the base of the moon in a misguided attempt to prove that there's water on the moon when what people really want is an awe-inspiring journey to Mars.

Okay, that was a very mixed metaphor but I can't make that point enough, NASA: time to start reaching for the stars. Enough stupid landers crashing into planets.

Since Kanye jumped onstage at the VMAs, Taylor Swift has become more famous than she ever would have been if that hadn't happened. I did a little test of my own this morning, a scientific examination of Taylor Swift's fame pre-Kanye and post-Kanye. The test was this: I searched The Superficial for mentions of Taylor before and after the VMA incident.

The final tally of total number of times Taylor Swift was mentioned on The Superficial in:

September, October, and November 2009: Eight.
June, July and August 2009: zero.

In fact, every mention of Taylor Swift on that blog was from after the Kanye incident.

But I can prove that Taylor Swift's current level of fame owes more to Kanye than to her musical talent even more scientifically, by using Google. Did you know that you can Google something and find out how often it's mentioned over a period of time, and they'll even give you a little handy bar graph? It's true, and I did just that for Taylor Swift. Here's what I got:

Note the first article on that list. But note, more, the two peaks on that graph. In October, 2008, she released her second album and was on a bunch of industry magazine covers and hit the top of the charts... then began her long slow slide into KatyPerryville, until Fall, 2009, when Taylor Swift had not released anything new or done anything of note... except get insulted by Kanye West, an insult that led to her increasing in fame beyond anything she could have expected and in getting invited to host Saturday Night Live.

So what does all this have to do with the Yankees? And sports, in general? A lot, as it turns out, because everyone hates the Yankees, and hates success achieved the good ol' American way (being better and richer than everyone else) and everyone feel sympathetic for Taylor Swift and the other Nancy Kerrigans of the world, people who get vaulted to fame and fortune by bad luck.

Which is, as I said, bad for society: We -- and by "we," again, I mean you -- celebrate the Nancy Kerriganing of America even though it goes against everything we should want to celebrate and promote. We remember Nancy Kerrigan even though she was a snot and even though she finished second, but can you name the person who won the gold medal that year?

It was Oksana Baiul, who didn't have the good luck to get kneecapped so that she'd be remembered.

In celebrating the NancyKerriganing of Americans, we are working against what sports are supposed to represent, and what we are supposed to be idealizing for our society: we are working against the idea of working hard to achieve excellence, the idea of pushing oneself to be better than others, the idea that being truly great is something that takes time and effort and, yes, money. We are, instead, telling ourselves that anyone can be excellent, or at least famous -- and rich -- provided that they are just in the right place at the right time.

Now, there is always a certain element of luck in achieving fame and fortune and success. If Harrison Ford had not been painting a doorway at the right time, he would not have become first Han Solo and then Indiana Jones and then Regarding Henry. He might have ended up being a painter. There were probably 10,000 actors at the time who could have created a memorable old space pirate who's just in it for the money, and Harrison Ford was lucky to have been picked out. There is a certain amount of luck in being Brett Favre -- being lucky enough to be born with the right genes to have the ability to grow that big and strong, to have big hands, to not have gotten polio or hit by a truck, to have been on the Packers when Don Majikowski went down, instead of rotting away in Atlanta. To have had Mike Holmgren as a coach instead of Lindy Infante.

But in celebrating Harrison Ford's acting- and vest-wearing achievements, and Brett Favre's passing achievements, we are not celebrating the luck that put them there. We recognize the luck that got them there (if we're smart, like me) but then we celebrate the skill that kept them atop the charts, as it were. It takes skill to stay up there at the top -- luck and skill to get there, and luck and skill to stay there. In 1979, among the movies that were released alongside Star Wars were Pete's Dragon and something called Killer of Sheep. The stars of those movies -- "Sean Marshall" and "Henry G. Sanders," respectively, did not go on to fame and fortune like Harrison Ford did. Neither, for that matter, did Mark Hamill or Carrie Fisher, who had respectable careers but did not dominate as an actor like Harrison Ford did.

In the NFL, in 1992, teams started quarterbacks like Brett Favre -- then an unknown -- and also started quarterbacks like Bobby Hebert, Browning Nagle, and Hugh Millen. Each of those last three had all the luck that Brett Favre had; each had made it to the NFL, just as he had. But they didn't have the skill to stay there, the skill to play for 17 consecutive seasons (and counting) without missing a game.

Brett Favre, Harrison Ford, and the New York Yankees are the exact opposite of Nancy Kerrigans, the exact opposite of the Erin Andrews', but we don't celebrate them. We vilify them and try to create ways to stop them, while celebrating the Nancy Kerrigans, and we do that because it's easier to believe that fame and success are a matter of luck than to believe that they're a matter of skill. Americans would rather win the lottery than build a company from the ground up, it seems, and Nancy Kerrigan, Taylor Swift, and Erin Andrews represent winning the lottery: they are not much more skillful, or hardworking, than their peers, but they got lucky and got a taste of fame.

Celebrating luck over skill is a bad thing because it encourages people to wait for luck rather than work hard to get the skill. But that's not the only reason to bemoan the Nancy Kerriganing of America. There's also the fact that the fame, and fortune, and success that comes from being Nancy Kerriganed into the heights is short-lived and short-sighted.

Paul McCartney mentioned once that his success as a musician -- a musician who cannot read music -- came from the sheer amount of practice he put in. The Beatles got picked to play a German strip club and had to play long, long hours. By the time they became "overnight" successes they'd played 270 shows in 18 months or so between 1960 and 1962, and by 1964, they'd played 1,200 times live. (Source: Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers). U2, no slouches at musicianry, formed in 1976, and signed a record deal in 1980. They didn't hit it really big, though, until The Joshua Tree, which got released 11 years into their career -- and which they'd interrupted the recording of to tour some more.

The Beatles and U2 are among the two most long-lasting musical acts of my lifetime. 45 years after hitting it big, The Beatles hit it big again this year with the re-release of their music. U2's latest album, No Line On The Horizon, sold over a million copies in Europe and the US, but was considered a disappointment by them. While Taylor Swift's latest album, Fearless, has sold over 4,000,000 copies in the US, my argument still holds, because Taylor Swift hasn't shown the staying power that U2 or The Beatles have: U2's album sales are in part a disappointment because no album of theirs has ever sold less than 1,000,000 copies in the US -- none of their twelve albums over 19 years has ever sold less than 1,000,000 copies, and some have gone as high as ten million.

All without anyone hitting Bono in the knee with a tire iron, or taking nude photos of The Edge.

This is a sports post, so let me focus on sports. Michael Jordan didn't come out of nowhere to become the greatest basketball player ever. It's legend, now, that he got cut from his high school team, but what isn't legend and should be is that Michael Jordan is widely considered to have one of the hardest-working practice ethics ever. Tiger Woods, too -- a guy I used to admire but now think is kind of a jerk and no longer admire -- is reported to be an extremely hard worker at being great at golf.

Compare them to Michelle Wie, who was blessed with a little talent and a lot of luck, and who has yet to win an LPGA tour event. I could go on and mention other who are celebrated for being famous or considered to be pretty or who were lucky to get the spotlight-- Danica Patrick (career wins, 1), Kellen Winslow Jr., the "I'm a soldier" guy who thought swearing and comparing himself to real soldiers was the way to go, and who now toils away on 1-7 Tampa Bay.

But the point is made: The brief, momentary fame and success that comes from a Nancy Kerriganing isn't worth celebrating, or hoping for. If you want a career at something, or even to just do it for a long time for fun, then hoping for the Kerriganization works against you.

Will we know who Taylor Swift is in 10 years? I doubt it.

Will Kellen Winslow Jr. be enshrined next to Brett Favre in the Hall of Fame in 10 years? I doubt it.

And yet, it goes on, people loving the Kerrigan moments while hating teams like the Yankees, who just go out and win, who just are excellent at what they do, and who excel at what they do. They badmouth Brett Favre for wanting to (and being able to) play football even after the Green Bay Packers no longer wanted him to do so. They complain that we need "salary caps" and other rules to keep the Yankees from winning every year. They gripe about the BCS and how it rewards schools like USC and Florida and Texas and punishes schools like Boise State and Iowa... all while not recognizing that Boise State and Iowa are Taylor Swift and Nancy Kerrigan, that the Yankees and Brett Favre are what America is truly about, and what we should truly aspire to. They -- you -- do that because it's easier to believe in success when success is just a lightning strike away than it is to believe in success when success is years and years and millions of dollars of hard work away.

While we can enjoy the brief spectacle that comes when, occasionally, Kanye West embarrasses Taylor Swift, or when Boise State wins 10 games in a row and does so in an entertaining fashion, those aren't what sports are really about, and aren't what America is really about. Those are sidelines, little blurbs of fame and entertainment that brighten up our day but don't really do more than that. When Iowa briefly climbs up in the polls and takes on Ohio State (to lose), when Wisconsin goes 12-1 and almost gets a BCS spot only to crash back to 7-6 the next year, those are the equivalent of Nancy Kerrigan getting kneecapped: They highlight a second-place finisher who otherwise we wouldn't know about, and show us a little bit of the world we wouldn't pay attention to absent that little happy accident. So we briefly (as I did this year) root for Iowa and (as lots of you did this year) buy Taylor Swift songs, having just heard who she was, but that should be all. We shouldn't be celebrating those achievements, because they were dumb luck or celebrations of something other than talent, hard work, and money.

On the other hand, when USC and Florida get credit over and over for being great, when the Yankees win title number 27, when New York and Boston and Los Angeles teams keep grabbing the spotlight over Pittsburgh and Kansas City and Nebraska, that's the way things should be, and that's what we should be rooting for. Those teams got to the top, and stayed there, through a combination of smarts and hard work and yes, money, but it takes smarts and hard work to keep that money rolling in. Just look at the Mets and the Yankees.

You know how scientists study twins in some instances? They do that because twins make a great case study for some experiments. Being genetically identical, scientists can use twins as a great control group because they don't differ at the most fundamental level.

The Mets and Yankees are baseball's twin study. Both of them play in New York, both of them rake in the cash, but the Mets just keep losing while the Yankees just keep winning. Playing in the same exact city with the same exact media market and number of fans and advantages that the Yankees have, the Mets have won... two World Championships.Two, versus twenty-seven for the Yankees. Two.

That can't be explained by the kind of dumb luck that Americans want to celebrate, dumb luck and Nancy Kerriganing over smarts and hard work and money. Twenty-Seven versus two is the proof that Americans should honor the Yankees, because the Yankees take their advantages (New York, money) and use it wisely, in a talented way, and become better at what they do.

Here's more proof: A few years back, the Yankees let manager Joe What's-His-Name, Torre, go. That was, in some circles, derided. At least some of the people I know said they shouldn't have done that. (More of the people I know said Who cares? It's baseball?, but that's a different point for a different post.)

This year, Torre and his new team met the Yankees and their new manager, Joe What's-His-Name, Girardi, in the playoffs. (The Yankees appear to be following the same management pamphlet that circulated around Green Bay a while back, entitled Make Sure All Your Managers Have The Same First Name. It must be to save on letterhead or something.) The winner? The Yankees and their new manager -- proving that the Yankees were smart enough to be able to let a good manager go and still win.

It takes smarts to know when to let a grizzled old veteran who's had a lot of success go -- just ask Green Bay Packers GM Ted Thompson, who doesn't yet know when to do that -- and it takes smarts to hire a new manager who will then beat the old manager.

Sure, it's easier to hire a new manager and make it a good one when you've got billions of dollars, like the Yankees -- but that just proves my point, because the Yankees wouldn't have billions of dollars if they were mismanaged and weren't worth looking at. Some teams with all the same advantages as the Yankees, or as their other counterparts in identical circumstances, just can't get it right. It's not just the Mets and the Yankees. It's also the Clippers and the Lakers.

The Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers play basketball in the exact same city, with the exact same fan base and exact same media outlets and thus the exact same starting position. The total number of championships held between these two teams is fifteen -- that's zero for the Clippers, and fifteen for the Lakers.

Why do the Lakers win more titles and have more fans and (probably) make more money? Because they have Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson? That's no answer; if that's the answer, why don't the Clippers have Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson? Or their equivalent? The answer is that the Lakers are better run and better organized and just better than the Clippers (and than most NBA Teams.)

But still, people hate the Yankees. People hate USC. People hate success and find reasons to credit things beyond simply being better for their success.

"The Yankees win because they spend all that money," people say. Conan O'Brien made that joke, that the Yankees' victory shows what hard work and a billion dollars will get you. But other teams spend money, too, and other teams (like the Mets) have the exact same base from which to work... and don't win 27 titles.

"USC just gets a lot of credit from the media," people complain about college football titan USC, which sits at number 22 in this weeks' BCS poll, but which stayed in the top 25 even though they've lost three games, and even though two of those losses weren't even kind of close. But why does USC get a lot of credit from the media? Not because of their location -- there are other equally-famous schools around in California, Berkeley and UCLA and Stanford, none of which are in the BCS top 25. There are other famous schools out there in college football, Notre Dame and Nebraska and Tennessee, but they don't stay in the top 25 after losing three games. No, USC gets a lot of credit because people know they're good anyway, and even when they struggle, they're still good and still a lot better than those flash-in-the-pan teams, those Nancy Kerrigans like Iowa that rise up to number 6 and then drop back down to 10 and soon will fall out of the limelight entirely.

But people want to believe that Iowa is the way to go, that Boise State is the way to go. Play on a blue field, work hard, and give Ohio State a tough game and good things will happen to you with a lot of luck, people want to believe.

And maybe they will. Maybe Kanye West will storm onto the court at a Memphis Grizzlies game and the resultant attention will send the Grizzlies to their first-ever NBA Finals and America will thrill to the prospect of an underdog making it big. Maybe someone will snap nude photos of Sebastijan Ajster, currently ranked 1,365th in the PGA tour rankings, and he'll flash into our consciousness and get an endorsement deal from a golf-club maker and net himself a nice little income before fading away again, too. Maybe someone will kneecap Brett Favre at the start of the postseason and Tarvaris Jackson will get to quarterback his team in the Superbowl, a nice little human interest story that will fill up some air time.

But will those people be back year after year after year? Will the Memphis Grizzlies ever have 15 NBA trophies to hoist? Will Sebastian Ajster wear a green coat at Augusta? Will Tarvaris Jackson go to three Superbowls, as Kurt Warner has and Brett Favre is likely to do?

I doubt it. I doubt it just as much as I doubt that Mr F and Mr Bunches, my three-year-olds, will know who "Taylor Swift" is. I'll bet that in 15 years, I'll be telling Mr F and Mr Bunches about how I've liked The Beatles since I was a kid, how I listened to my parents' Beatles records and then how I got the older kids to like them and now they liked them, and nobody will remember Taylor Swift. And I'll bet I'll be doing that in a year when the Yankees will be winning their 35th World Series, and maybe Brett Favre will even still be playing.

And I'll bet that even then, people will feel sorry for whoever is accidentally famous that year, and even then, people will be saying that we have to construct a BCS that will let the Boise States into it because it's not fair that USC and Florida always get in, that even then people will be saying we need a baseball salary cap because it's not fair that the Yankees and Red Sox always win everything, that even then people will be decrying good, old-fashioned American success and hoping for lottery-winning, lightning-striking success.

It'll still be going on, because most people will still rather be lucky than work hard, and most people would rather explain away others' success and their own comparative lack of the same by claiming others' success is based on unfairness, that they had more money or better players or more money to buy better players. They'll cheer the sudden, accidental fame and jeer the longtime dynasties.

They'll be wrong, then, as they are now. They'll be wrong because the Yankees, USC, Brett Favre, the Lakers, all the successful rich people and groups that people love to hate, succeed not through unfairness but by smartly using their advantages, while others don't do the same. They'll be wrong because fame and success and fortune that come about entirely by accident are short-lived and not worth celebrating, or, really, wanting at all.

But they'll still do it. And I'll still be wearing my Lakers' shirts, listening to my Beatles' albums, and working hard, the way truly successful people always have and always will.

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