In those moments, when the sprinter steps into the blocks or the slugger stands in the batter’s box against a fireballing reliever, nothing else matters.
Nobody helps in such settings. They’re each alone, utterly alone. Either they run faster than the other athletes or they don’t. Either the man with the wooden stick somehow hits that 98 mph fastball or he doesn’t.
No endorsements will make a difference.
No amount of ads extolling their virtues will help.
No conniving or scheming or lying will help in that moment.
Yes, maybe that’s part of why I prefer sports to politics.
The sprinter settles into the blocks awaiting the starter’s pistol and must react immediately and flawlessly.
That batter must stand 60 feet, six inches away from a very large man throwing a very hard object at improbable speeds. The ball could crack his helmet or break his arm if he’s hit by it.
The batter can’t think about that. He must focus on somehow having the reflexes and coordination and timing and guts to stand there and hit the ball.
He’s alone at that moment.
Oh, sure there may be 50,000 people in the stadium and millions more watching on television.
But in such moments, sports are as close to a pure meritocracy as one might find in the world.
It’s a startling contrast to the smarmy world of politics, a place of pretense and posturing.
Posturing won’t help in sports. Pretense won’t help. Pretending to be patriotic may help Donald Trump get votes.
It’s of no help in the batter’s box or starter’s blocks. Or for quarterbacks standing in pockets looking for receivers as very large men attempt to separate them from their spleens and the football.
Or basketball players shooting free throws as thousands shriek at them.
I endured several seconds of last week’s Republican convention. I couldn’t take anymore than a few seconds of watching those posturing, hypocritical phonies wrapping themselves in the flag and thumping the Bible as they bashed anybody to the left of Mitt Romney.
I was equally disgusted this week watching seconds of the Democratic convention as Bernie Sanders’ fanatics behaved like spectacularly ill-behaved and petulant kindergartners who didn’t get what they wanted for Christmas.
They stomped and wailed and carried on for a few seconds. I couldn’t take more than that.
Did I say I prefer sports to politics?
Nothing is perfect, of course. Sports is ripe with corruption, from the monumentally amoral crooks who used to run FIFA to athletes using performance enhancing drugs to the enablers who provide the steroids and whatever else may help athletes.
And there’s no shortage of knuckleheads as Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale demonstrated the other day in a childish snit over uniforms he didn’t like. Sale cut up throwback uniforms the team was supposed to wear that day.
The team immediately suspended the lefty and sent him home.
Then there was the case last year when Nationals reliever Jonathan (The Strangler, as somebody named him) Papelbon charged down the dugout steps to grab teammate Bryce Harper around the neck. Millions have seen the video.
Teammates intervened before any damage was done. Yet, Papelbon remains with the team.
Imagine if that had happened in any workplace but a professional sports team. In a newsroom or insurance office or factory the worker who behaved like Papelbon would have immediately been fired.
Yes, sports are far from perfect.
But in those pure moments of competition, when the sprinter settles into the blocks or the batter stands in the batter’s box, they are alone.
Track is a meritocracy.
Baseball is a meritocracy.
All sports are meritocracies.
Donald Trump has his children working for him. That’s his right. I have no problem with that.
But if he owned a baseball team, he couldn’t stick his kids in the lineup.
They don’t have what it takes to play pro sports. Few do.
As a kid I wanted to be a professional baseball player. But I didn’t, as they used to say, have the goods.
In sports, the team with the most points or runs wins.
Even in politics, the candidate with the most votes usually wins. But not always. Where clarity is nearly always the case in sports it’s often not the case in politics.
Everybody certainly remembers the 2000 presidential election when Al Gore received more votes than George W. Bush.
But Bush, thanks to contested votes here in Florida, won in the Electoral College.
The bad taste from that election still sticks in the craw of many sort of like the vomit from a night of heavy tequila drinking.
It was epic political theater.
I prefer athletic theater like Game 2 of the 1978 World Series.
If you’re a baseball fan of a certain age you’ll never forget the classic ninth-inning showdown between Dodgers rookie Bob Welch and Yankees veteran slugger Reggie Jackson.
I haven’t forgotten and it’s been nearly 40 years.
The Dodgers led 4-3 with two outs in the top of the ninth and two runners on base in Dodger Stadium.
Reggie could easily give the Yankees a 6-4 lead. Or Welch could get him out to save the game. Reggie worked the count to 3-2 and fouled off several heaters from Welch, who threw nothing but fastballs.
It was power vs. power.
It was talent vs. talent.
It was Mano-a-Mano.
Finally, on the ninth pitch, Welch struck him out and saved the game for the Dodgers.
That was a pure sports moment.
No pretense could help Reggie or Welch.
No posturing could help Reggie or Welch.
No petulance from supporters could help either man.
It was a moment of pure merit.
On that night, in that moment, Bob Welch, the rookie, had the goods, and beat one of the great sluggers ever.
That was sports at its best.
It wasn’t politics.