2005, February: Humility

The lesson is from the first book of Luke, with selections starting at the 46th verse.

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. … He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”

Yesterday was an important day, a day that many of us had anticipated for a long time. After many days of building tension, the Red Sox finally had the first full-squad workout of spring training. Our quest for another world championship has begun.

This is perhaps the last moment when it will be seemly to draw a moral lesson from last October’s victory, but since I missed my usual spot in the Morning Prayers pitching rotation while I was on sabbatical, perhaps I can be forgiven for relishing the Red Sox victory one more time. And though we did win the World Series, everyone in Boston knows what the real victory was: it was defeating the Yankees in the American League Championship series, surely the most exciting and greatest single series ever played – at least from the perspective of Red Sox fans.

What is it about the Red Sox and the Yankees? It’s not just a Boston-New York thing, though surely the furor is fed by the centuries-old rivalries between these two great neighboring cities. No, I think it’s about the personality, nay the character to use an old fashioned term, of the two teams.

A sportswriter last week put it succinctly and well. “The Red Sox feel they are a ‘team’ and that the Yankees are a collection of stars, not a team. They are not playing the same corporate game as the Yankees.” And that was from a New York sportswriter.

How did the Yankees get this cult of the individual, and how did the Red Sox avoid it?

It starts with the man at the top, The Boss as they call him in New York. Big George Steinbrenner, the most impatient, most provocative, most bullying, most arrogant, and biggest spending head of any club in all of Major League baseball.

Take this recent report from another sportswriter: “Yankees owner George Steinbrenner summoned Alex Rodriguez to Tampa last month to deliver a face-to-face message to his third baseman: It's time to assert yourself on this team. Often using coarse language, Steinbrenner told Rodriguez to take more of a leadership role on and off the field… Steinbrenner compared Rodriguez's first season with the Yankees to Roger Clemens' inaugural season in pinstripes in 1999, telling Rodriguez that he and Clemens tried too hard ‘to blend in like one of the guys’ after joining the Yankees. ‘I didn't bring you here to be just one of the guys,’ Steinbrenner said.” So if we in Boston think A-Rod is an arrogant jerk with that move on Arroyo’s glove last fall, he comes by it honestly.

The Yankees have a payroll of $204 million, and they could not buy a world championship with it.

It is possible, perhaps, for the head of an organization to have too much money, because it makes him think he cannot hurt the team no matter what he does, and that he can buy excellence. But a team can be great only if it is more than the sum of its parts, and only if its leader sublimates his ego for the good of the team.

The character of the top guy serves as a model for everyone on the team. If the lesson taught is “me first, the team second,” the team will operate like the legendary “25 players, 25 taxicabs” Red Sox of years gone by. If the top guy thinks the players are better playing in a little bit of fear all the time, the players will respond by playing to protect themselves and not to promote the best interests of the club.

And that is why the Red Sox beat the Yankees last October. Because when the chips were down, the Red Sox pulled together.

The character of the team reflects the character of its head, and the job of the head is to unite and not divide. A team will fail if everyone on it thinks his job is to star as an individual.

Thank goodness baseball is back, with all the life lessons it teaches. We sometimes forget them over the long cold winter.


(Sportwriters referenced: Kevin Kernan, Mantei fires away, Boston Herald, February 20, 2005; Tom Verducci, SI.com Inside Baseball, Calling Out A-Rod, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2005/writers/tom_verducci/02/01/arod.ge... )