Thrill of Victory

Do postseasons ruin our perspective on greatness?

The thought occurred to me sometime late in Vanderbilt’s Monday baseball game against Georgia Tech, which was, if the Commodores don’t finish this one off, then nothing else about this this season will matter. About two seconds later, the absurdity of that thought also occurred to me, for what Vandy has done this year was no trivial feat.

Twenty-six Southeastern Conference regular-season wins – that’s an all-time league record. Fifty-three wins against just 10 losses; to that point, it was the best single-season winning percentage in school history since World War II. In VU’s 14 weekend series, the ‘Dores came out on top in every one. I could go on, but you get the point.

Fortunately for Vanderbilt, the Commodores finished off Tech by a 7-1 score to become one of 16 teams still standing in college baseball’s playoff. But had VU lost, the season would have been over, and given that the baseline expectation for this team was a College World Series appearance (if not a title), nobody would have cared how well VU would have done in the previous 63 if this one hadn’t gone in the “W” column.

Analyzing sports teams and athletes so often comes down to how you answer this one question: Did you win the Big One? For some programs and franchises, anything season falling short of a national title or a world championship is abject failure. The litmus test for a quarterback’s greatness often boils down to whether he won a Super Bowl; never mind that there plenty of ordinary Jay Schroeders and Trent Dilfers who have.

All of which prompts a question: have we lost most of our perspective on, and appreciation for, true greatness?

We are fortunate to live in a research-oriented era that has shed so much perspective on winning and losing in sports. To sum it up in one phrase, going All The Way often is due more to luck than it is skill. Two years ago, the Giants beat the 13-3 Patriots in the Super Bowl despite going 9-7 in the regular season. Four years previous, they won just one more regular-season game and again faced a Patriot team that, this time, hadn’t lost all season. Once again, the Giants won.

Does anyone really believe that, if you replayed those Super Bowls 10 times each, the Giants would again come out on top?

I’ll give another related example: a regular guy named Voros McCracken discovered, about a dozen years ago, that the number of base hits a pitcher gives up in a full season can vary randomly from year to year. If you’re watched enough baseball, you intuitively know it with your own eyes: we’re all seen pitchers who give up one seeing-eye ground-ball after another as his opponent rallies for a big inning, and others give up an inordinate amount of line-drives hit right to fielders that amount to nothing. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t.

Back to the Vanderbilt-Tech game for a moment: the 53-10 Commodores were, by everyone’s estimation, superior to the 37-26 Yellow Jackets coming into Monday. The ‘Dores were one of the nation’s best-hitting teams, but the night before, they were shut out in a 2-hit effort by a pitcher who came in with a 5.75 ERA. The Commodores generally hit a lot of line-drives and hard-hit ground balls, and hit a bunch against Tech on Sunday too, but almost without exception, none of them fell. The next night was a different story, and Vandy advanced.

But what if the Commodores hadn’t gotten better fortune on Monday? History might have forgotten this outstanding team. Instead, VU moves on from here, and though the field of teams remaining is unusually strong, the ‘Dores seem to stand as good a chance as anyone of winning a national title.

But “chance” is the operative word. There’s no reason VU couldn’t run into more bad luck against inferior teams between now and then.

On that note, college football fans have complained about the BCS for years, and while I’ve been one of them, the system does have one merit: there’s no room for a merely good team to get hot at the right time and win a title. We can debate whether the right team gets crowned champion every year, but at least we know it’s always a great team.

Look, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have postseasons; how anticlimactic would it be if we decided the champions through a vote of writers and coaches? That said, if I ran the world of sports, I’d build in more of an advantage for the top dogs in the postseason; I’ve never understood why, in baseball, teams play 162 games and can win their division by 20 games, but get no more leg up once the playoffs start than an extra home game within a playoff series. The NCAA Basketball Tournament – exciting as it may be – has resulted in several less-than-great teams wearing the title crown; yes, the top teams do get a seeding advantage, but shouldn’t an outstanding season result in more than that?

But my biggest gripe is in how we remember the unfortunate, great teams. Back to the baseball Commodores for a minute – a stumble between now and then wouldn’t make the team’s season any less great than it truly was. Whatever happens from here, I wish we’d remember that titles do not always determine greatness, and vise-versa – as, I’m sure, the Patriots would remind us.