On opening day of the baseball season I retrieved my Arizona Republic from my front walk, took it inside my house and opened it to the sports pages, as usual. The main headline made me want to throw the darned thing away. It read “Kennedy Driven By Detractors.”
I didn’t have to read the piece that followed to know what it would say, but did so anyway. Sure enough, it aped the “critics as motivators” theme that’s impossible to escape in the echo-chamber world of sports. In it, players strive to excel to “show” the people who doubted them, whomever they may be (they’re rarely identified). Teams strive to win on the same ground.
As you may or may not know, the Kennedy in the headline was Ian Kennedy, who would be the Arizona Diamondbacks’ starting pitcher that day against the St. Louis Cardinals. Kennedy has been the D’Backs’ top starter for three seasons now. He’s a baseball golden boy-- a high-school star in his native California, a PAC-10 pitcher of the year at USC, a first-round draft choice of the New York Yankees (in 2006) and a 21-game winner and Cy Young Award candidate with Arizona in 2011. At age 28 he will have collected some $9 million in salary and bonuses through this season, with his best earnings years ahead.
Yet what does Kennedy think about when he takes the mound according to Republic baseball writer Nick Piecoro? That somebody once said he was too small to succeed in the Bigs (he stands 6 feet tall and weighs 190 pounds), that he “didn’t throw hard enough” and that he was a “back-end starter at best.” My goodness, in the face of such obloquy it’s a wonder the young man can muster the courage to appear in public.
Kennedy no doubt knows the “detractors” stuff is bunk but mouths it because he thinks it adds the touch of adversity that makes his professional odyssey seem more heroic. Writer Piecoro knows it, too, but better knows an easy story when he sees one. Multiple that by a couple thousand and you have the stuff that fills our daily newspaper and TV sports menus, to the betterment of few.
Indeed, to hear our scribes and commentators tell it top athletes have just two major sources of inspiration: the abovementioned desire to prove “critics” wrong and dedication to a teammate, relative or homey who is ill or deceased. The fact that just about every adult can identify someone in that last list, and the nobility inherent in a memorial quest, makes it that story irresistible to teller, newsman and audience, ensuring its perpetuation.
The dedicated-victory line probably predates the Trojan Wars but on these shores traces mostly to a tale involving Knute Rockne, the famous Notre Dame football coach. Trailing Army at halftime in a 1928 game, Rockne told his players that he’d been present at the premature-death bed of George Gipp, an ND football hero of several years before, and that Gipp’s dying wish was that, when things looked dark, Rockne should ask his team to “win one for the Gipper.” He did and so did they, pulling off what has come to be regarded as a monumental upset. The legend was burnished by the 1940 movie in which Pat O’Brien, who made his acting bones playing saintly Catholic priests, was Rockne, and darlin’ Ronald Reagan was an angelic Gipp.
A bit of research casts doubt on the story. While Army was favored in that long-ago clash ND was a not-bad 4-2 in wins and losses going in, and had enough talent to win national titles the next two seasons, so it wasn’t exactly corned beef hash. Further, contemporary accounts had it that Rockne wasn’t present at Gipp’s death and that his teams well knew his habit of ignoring the truth in his halftime orations. For example, he once told his troops to win one for his hospitalized son even though the lad was hale and home at the time.
Gipp died in 1920, so the players whom Rockne exhorted didn’t know him. That probably was good because history has it Gipp was a card sharp and pool shark better known in South Bend’s after-hours clubs than around campus. The fact that he was an almost-26-year-old undergrad at the time of his death from strep throat, and had been expelled from school for poor attendance (later reinstated), attests to his lack of diligence as a scholar.
He resurfaced in the news in 2007 when his body was exhumed, and his DNA taken, to check rumors he’d fathered an out-of-wedlock child with a teenaged girl. He beat that rap, meaning that in that case, at least, the Gipper hadn’t been a dipper.
The latest manifestation of the “win-one-for” syndrome involved the University of Louisville team in last week’s NCAA men’s big-school basketball tournament and Kevin Ware, one of its players. When Ware went down with a horrendous broken leg during a quarterfinal game with Duke the cry immediately went up that L’ville was on a crusade to succeed for him. One radio guy I heard on Semifinal Saturday declared that the fallen teammate gave L’ville a “huge motivational edge” in the games to come, meaning, I suppose, that Ware, a useful reserve guard, was worth more on the bench with his leg in a cast than healthy and on the floor. That doubtful premise was repeated throughout Louisville’s triumphal march.
Let’s try that again, though. Louisville entered the tournament No. 1 in the national polls and as the top overall seed. It was favored in every game it played. It had a deep, athletic roster and an A-List coach. It was leading Duke when Ware was injured late in the first half of a game it won, 85-63, so it must have been otherwise motivated to get that far. But—hey!—never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
So what really motivates top jocks? One thing is that winning feels better than losing, something every weekend athlete knows. Another is that on the pro level winning pays better, and if money is an abstraction to an athlete (it often is after a certain point) it’s very real to many of the people around him.
The best description of what makes a champion came to me from my friend Carmen Salvino, the Hall of Fame bowler with whom I wrote a 1988 book (Fast Lanes; Bonus Books). “It takes a big ego and tunnel vision,” said he, adding “neither of those things go over big around the house.” He might have added that those attributes also don’t look good in print, which is why they’re not often part of the journalistic jockographies we read.
Given the way athletes are lionized, the big-ego part should be obvious. Just about every player in every big-time sport is a physical genius, having grown up as the best athlete in his school, town or maybe even state, and petted, pampered and protected from age 10 or 11. That’s not the kind of background that breeds humility. It’s a miracle any of them turn out to be fit to live with.
Tunnel vision is what turns that ability into victories on a field full of others similarly endowed. Lots of people are good at games but few can perform them at a high level amid the myriad distractions presented by any athletic venue, hostile or friendly. Such concentration is an intensely selfish skill that must be ruthlessly developed. The memory of a departed loved one or a carping naysayer can spur greater effort, but this usually comes when the athlete is alone at the end of a hard workout, debating whether to run that extra lap or complete the extra round of shots or lifts. When the clock is winding down, and the fans are screaming, and the opponent is in his face, any extraneous thought can be ruinous.
Athletes say they’re at their best when they are “in the zone”—so engrossed in the tasks at hand that they’re unaware the rest of the world exists. Time slows, sound blurs and focus narrows to a laser-like dot.
It’s world without other people.