Judging a Season by its Cover

Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, March 24, 2008

Knee-jerk reactions are a cornerstone of the sports world, perhaps best exemplified by the weekly overreaction of the college and pro football fan.  Yet it is the smug sweeping expectation, antonym of the knee-jerk reaction, that reigns most supreme.  Call it the ‘knee-jerk preaction,’ to coin a term, and it dooms and crowns without conscience – and often without accuracy.

It was the knee-jerk preaction that declared the 2007-2008 New England Patriots as pro football’s all-time greatest team without bothering to wait for the Super Bowl – where the Pats were upset by the New York Giants.  Just two years earlier, the same ‘greatest’ hyperbole was thrown around with the USC Trojans of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush – who were then defeated in the National Championship game by the Texas Longhorns of Vince Young.

Yes, perhaps it would have been better to wait until after the season to offer the deserved plaudits, but sports fans and media ‘experts’ do not exactly possess the patience of Job.  Thus it was that Harold Miner was declared the second coming of Michael Jordan, that the World Football League was considered serious competition to the NFL, and that soccer fanaticism in the United States was supposed to be ignited by Pele… and then the 1994 World Cup… and then the 1999 women’s national team… and then Freddy Adu… and then David Beckham.  Grandiose knee-jerk preactions all, delivered with impatience and ending in disappointment.

This is not to ridicule all knee-jerk preactions, for many are borne out.  Tiger Woods and LeBron James (and Michael Phelps as well, to a lesser extent) have lived up to everything that was predicted for them and then some.  Additionally, the majority of a sport’s championship-contending teams can often be predicted accurately entering the start of a season; so can the majority of the cellar-dwelling squads.

Here, for example, is a knee-jerk preaction preview of the upcoming baseball season, based on the prevailing opinion of fans and analysts:  

American League

  • The A.L. East will again be decided by the two best teams in baseball, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, with the loser wrapping up the AL Wild Card.  The best young pitchers in baseball are the Yankees’ Joba Chamberlain, the Yankees’ Phil Hughes, and the Red Sox’s Clay Buchholz.  The Toronto Blue Jays are a fine team in the wrong division.  The young and talented Tampa Bay Rays are moving on up… to fourth place; Rays third baseman Evan Longoria is a leading Rookie of the Year candidate.  The Baltimore Orioles are abysmal.
  • The A.L. Central will feature another battle between the Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers; edge to Detroit and the top lineup in the Majors.  The Minnesota Twins will miss Johan Santana, the Chicago White Sox are stuck in mud, and the Kansas City Royals are barely worth a mention.
  • The A.L. West will be won by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  It won’t be close.  Former Oriole Erik Bedard will improve the Seattle Mariners’ fortunes.  Neither the Oakland Athletics nor the Texas Rangers have the talent to make any noise.  

National League

  • The N.L. East belongs to the New York Mets by virtue of the Johan Santana trade.  The Philadelphia Phillies will contend first for the division title and then for the Wild Card, the Atlanta Braves nipping at their heels.  The Washington Nationals have a new stadium but lack pitching.  The Florida Marlins are several years away from being competitive.
  • The N.L. Central will be won by the Chicago Cubs, nosing out the Milwaukee Brewers.  The St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros are middle-of-the-pack units.  New manager Dusty Baker should reinvigorate the Cincinnati Reds, but there’s only so far they can go.  There’s no hope ahead for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
  • The N.L. West is the best division in baseball.  Between the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Colorado Rockies, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the San Diego Padres, who knows who’ll win?  Meanwhile, the awful San Francisco Giants will lose.  A lot.  

There, the current knee-jerk preactions for each Major League team entering the upcoming season.  (Keep in mind that the opinions described may not represent my own personal perspective.  I am dubious about Detroit’s chances, for instance, due to my feeling that the Indians possess superior pitching.)

Will many of these expectations come true?  Sure.  Why then list them?  Because I cherish the snapshot in time we find ourselves in before events can transpire, when our imagination runs rampant on the possibilities:  that moment of NCAA Tournament bracket deliberation before any game has been played; that moment of taut anticipation before the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl; the morning of Opening Day.

And then I revel in the shattering of our expectations.  I revel in the surprise team seizing the day and capturing our collective imaginations, in the heroics of a previously unknown player turning the most cynical of media disseminators into a roaring supporter.  I revel in those moments when sports makes our hearts beat faster, for there is nothing that we love more than to see something we never dared to hope for.  It may be an event as symbolic as the Miracle on Ice, as farfetched as Boise State’s sequence of gadget plays to Oklahoma, as stunning as Cassius Clay knocking out Sonny Liston, or as emotional as the lap of Cal Ripken, Jr., around Oriole Park at Camden Yards the night Lou Gehrig’s unbreakable record was broken.

Perhaps this upcoming baseball season will deliver another such moment, something we never could have expected.  I can’t wait.

Check that. I can wait.

2008 PER Sports, Inc.

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